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DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Ten.

February 4, 2018 Leave a comment

THE WAYWARD MATRON

Dareth Jericho was having a miserable time. His wife had been murdered by one of his guards, who had then been brutally dispatched in return, in an act of anger from his chief captor.

He had just learnt, after many years, that his former friend Lordich Secracar was alive and well.

Jericho had thought he had been executed. But not so. Lordich had conspired with Death himself to rid the world of the Brotherhood of the Wulf, and enforce his rule as leader of the Brotherhood of the Dragon.

His head swam as he sat cold and lonely in a damp, dark cell in an underground prison on a mysterious island.

To compound his loss, his newfound friend Silentus had been taken away and executed moments before. Dareth felt regret as the axe struck home, and his eyes closed in silent prayer and contemplation, even before the reverberation of steel on wood died away.

‘Forgive me, my friend,’ he said with a heavy heart.

In those few silent moments, he vowed to visit the dead man’s wife and pay his respects to her.

Lordich, true to his word, had permitted Jericho free rein over the small island, though accompanied at all times by two guards whom he very quickly named Stumpy and Beanpole.

Stumpy was thick as a tree trunk around the neck, with arms that could crush a man’s skull, of that Jericho had no doubt. Beanpole on the other hand was at least seven feet tall, with eyes that were large and protruding. The oddity about the pair was that Stumpy had a high-pitched voice, thin and reedy, and Beanpole had a deep resonant voice that grabbed and held the attention of all who heard it. Not that either said too much. Jericho had barely heard a word spoken by the unlikely duo in the past two days of his captivity. He sensed that they did not like each other much, and that he could use to his advantage.

If he were successful, he would be able to play one off the other and use this distraction to escape. He just needed a scenario and the opportunity.

So small was the island that he had explored most of it, bar the off-limits sections, but saw no visible means of escape. He had already been told it was futile to try to use magic to leave the island, and even the inhabitants used non-magical means to depart, which seemed to affirm the point.

Today, when they came for him, he had decided he would like to visit the top of the black tower and peer over the ramparts. Any hope he had of spotting Rosthagaar he knew would be fruitless; they had travelled too far in the clutch of a dragon for that. His intention was to get a better grasp of the lay of the land, and perhaps spot something he had missed, an escape route, or a place to hide while he devised a plan.

His heart was heavy, yet his spirit for escape was high, and this spurred him on. His thoughts, though, were interrupted by the sound of his jailers’ return; the distinctive shuffle of Stumpy and the jangle of keys that Beanpole incessantly twirled on a ring gave their presence away.

Cell door keys jangled in the lock, and with a click it unlocked. The door opened and Stumpy stood there with arms crossed, expectant.

Jericho stretched audibly, and then led the way out of the cell.

Stumpy and Beanpole looked at each other dumbfounded, and jogged after him.

‘Hold it! We lead the way,’ Beanpole grunted.

‘Fine, then lead me to the top of the black tower.’

‘Are you going to jump off?’ Stumpy laughed.

‘If only to stop having to look at your ugly face.’

Stumpy went to thump Jericho, but was restrained by Beanpole. He looked affronted at Beanpole’s actions, yet acquiesced.

Jericho chuckled quietly to himself, and set off with the duo. The protection of Lordich meant they could not harm him for fear of reprisals.

They passed through the cave-like dungeon quickly, and arrived at the black tower stairwell within minutes. Beanpole looked green at the thought of hundreds of steps to the summit, whereas Stumpy looked quite enthusiastic at the thought.

‘After me,’ said Stumpy, and with a spring in his gait he practically raced up the steps, followed by Jericho, and then slowly by Beanpole, whom, Jericho noted, was remarkably unfit.

Jericho thanked his stars that he was active. Despite his age, he could often still outpace new recruits to his ranks. With a slightly improved mood, he paced himself as the stone mountain ahead of him brought strain to his calf muscles.

Several minutes later Stumpy stood and stretched at the summit with a gaping smile, and down below the upper hatch Jericho could hear the echoed puffs and pants of Beanpole far behind.

‘Enjoyed that, did you?’ Jericho asked.

‘That was nothing; I do that every morning before breakfast,’ Stumpy boasted.

Jericho just nodded and looked around him. Nothing had changed since the last time he was here a few days ago, when he was dropped from a height by a dragon to land heavily on the hard stone floor of the tower. A crenellated wall ran the circumference of the tower, with slits for defence chiselled into the black stone. Jericho wondered why, since no ladder dared reach this height.

He walked over to the low barrier and grasped the coldness of the stone, and took in a deep breath of cold air that made him shiver slightly.

Below, the small island sat lost in a glittering ocean. From this height the layout of the land offered no clue as to an escape route, and as he suspected, Rosthagaar was nowhere to be seen, although whether he was looking in the right direction was anybody’s guess.

The distant horizon was hazy and marred only by a small black dot that seemed to run almost level with the tower, and appeared to be getting closer. This caught Jericho’s interest to the point that he ignored Beanpole’s gasps for breath behind him. What was the thing that headed his way? It could be a dragon, he thought, or was it a rescue? Then he dismissed the idea. Rescue was not an option; no one knew of his whereabouts.

‘Oh, I think I’m going to die,’ Beanpole wailed.

‘Quit your complaining,’ Stumpy squealed. ‘If the master saw you like this, he would kill you as soon as look at you.’

‘Better that than this damned pain in my legs.’

Jericho shook his head and returned to looking out to sea.

The shape had definitely grown larger, and it took on an oddly angular form. For a moment it reflected the sun, and there was a familiarity to it that he just could not put his finger on. What was it about this thing headed towards them that set his heart thumping?

His question was immediately answered; a second shape rounded the first and this was unmistakably an airship. An envelope of air held the wooden frame aloft with thickly wound ropes now visible in profile. As the ship pulled alongside its companion, new features presented themselves.

Black sails extended from the sides of the vessel. The main cabin was made from riveted iron sections and rusted in a semi-circular frame. The large glass fronted structure housed a wheelhouse, and smaller convex circles of glass ran down each side of the cabin of the pirate sky ship.

As the ship turned slightly to dock with its companion, the familiar skull-and-crossbones contrasted against the black of its envelope, and several cannon heads peeked out from holes cut in the side of the body of the ship, all serving to confirm his suspicions. Now he knew he had a chance to escape, not because the pirates themselves would aid his rescue, but that which floated alongside the pirate ship was his means of escape. He dared to allow himself, for the briefest of moments, a feeling of hope at the chance of freedom.

The long-lost portion of the golden temple formerly housing the temple’s infirmary now hovered near the tower. He recalled the day this particular section of temple had detached itself explosively from the main temple and floated away. There was considerable destruction, but thankfully no one was hurt.

Matron Truelove, herself unharmed, had called down from the quickly disappearing structure, and told anyone who would listen that she was sorry for the trouble, and added that she might be back one day. Jericho remembered distinctly Truelove’s face was a very bright red indeed.

With salvation in sight, Jericho did not delay. He stepped across the tower walkway to Stumpy who was knelt across Beanpole, and wafted air at his face.

‘I don’t know why you help him; he’s the one that said you couldn’t do a circuit of the tower stairwell within three minutes.’ Jericho smiled.

‘Oh yeah, you did, did you?’ Stumpy thumped Beanpole in the gut and then stood up. ‘Well, as it happens, I can do it in two minutes.’ And without further word, he ducked down the tower hatch and disappeared, eager to prove himself.

‘I never said that,’ said Beanpole angrily, and rubbed his bruised stomach.

‘Yes, I know, I just needed a way to separate you both.’ Jericho dived on top of Beanpole and pinned him to the stonework and then placed two very large hands around the shocked man’s neck.

Beanpole’s eyes grew wide; he knew what Jericho had planned for him. His attacker wanted to strangle him and he thrashed like a wild animal in the throes of a violent death.

Jericho withstood many blows and attempts to gouge his eyes, yet it did not take long to subdue Beanpole, and the man eventually succumbed to a lack of oxygen.

Jericho removed himself from the limp body, his deed done. Out of respect, he closed the dead man’s bloodshot eyes, and then reached into the victim’s clothes and sought out his wand.

Although he did not need it to perform magic, it would serve a purpose. With a swift flick of the wrist, Jericho aimed the wand at the wooden cover. It slammed shut and the bolt slid closed. He next heaved Beanpole’s body over the trapdoor in the hope that the extra weight would slow down any pursuit.

Without missing a beat, he raced to the rampart and checked the progress of the pirate airship. The vessel, to his relief, was barely a few hundred yards away, yet he still needed a way to attract their attention.

He slapped the wand in his palm absently, and then a thought formed; he raised the wand aloft and used a spell to elongate it into a long shaft, and from this sprouted a white pennant with the emblem of the Wulf emblazoned across it in gold and red. Jericho raised the new standard and waved it like a man possessed.

He hoped the good relationship the pirates held with Matron Truelove would ensure they would come to investigate, provided they spotted his flag and associated its device with the Matron.

Jericho willed the pirates to action, and as they drew close, he spied the captain with an eyeglass directed at him. The captain then gestured to his men, and slowly the ship began to move closer to the tower, painfully sedately from Jericho’s perspective.

A warning bell sounded faintly in the distance. His captors had realised he was missing, or they had spotted the ship, or both. Now he understood the slits cut into the tower ramparts. Sky pirates could reach this high, and the tower needed a defence against marauders.

Behind him, the wooden hatch resonated with a crash as if something heavy had smashed against it, most likely Stumpy he imagined.

He was desperate now. He knew the hatch would give eventually, and he did not want to be around when that happened.

The ship was a few yards away when a deckhand threw a thick rope to Jericho. He grabbed for it, and quickly tied it around his waist. He had to be swift as the craft was already moving rapidly by. He climbed on to the rampart and prepared to jump. He prayed they had lashed the other end of the rope securely.

Without warning, the rampart disintegrated around him in a loud bang and a cloud of dust. He fell and spun fast, and above him two heads appeared over the remains of the parapet and aimed wands at him. He flinched, but no spell struck him. Instead, a loud crack shocked his ears further, and then debris rained around him. The pirates had fired upon the newcomers with their cannon.

Jericho jerked to a rib-cracking stop as the rope suspended his fall. He swung in the breeze from a head wind and looked up. He cursed his luck; it was a long climb to the ship. Behind him, the tower had become smaller as they gained distance from it.

He felt a jerk, and realised unseen hands had begun to pull him upwards. It was a few minutes before he was roughly seized and hoisted aboard the pirate ship, to land unceremoniously at the feet of a dozen men, half of whom appeared barefooted.

He raised his head and was greeted by a rabble of mean-featured crew. Their clothes were tattered, yet colourful, and their teeth were held in vicious snarls, and just as colourful.

A hairy hand reached out to him and offered assistance. He took it not too keenly, unaware of the fate these men had in store for him. He was pulled to his feet roughly, and deposited among the throng of men. To his left, a long-bearded fellow thrust his way through the crowd. He wore a black hat that distinguished him from the other crew and his beard was finely braided with red silk. His teeth bore a charcoal-black colouring, and Jericho knew instantly that this man wore false teeth made from ebony wood. He was most impressed with his black leather knee-length boots that were polished to a high gloss. Obviously the cabin boy had pride in his work, or was whipped until he buffed the boots to the owner’s demands.

‘Captain Maurice Blackthorn, your servant.’ The bearded man bowed awkwardly, unaccustomed to the action, and received a snort of laughter from a handful of his men. His head whipped round and he stared at them with fiery eyes. ‘You dare laugh at your captain? This man is acquainted with Matron Truelove, and deserves our respect. The next of you to laugh will be thrown overboard.’

A chap to Jericho’s left gulped loudly and others looked down, unable to meet the captain’s eye.

Jericho noted how well spoken he was for a pirate and suspected Blackthorn was not always of this breed.

He stepped forward and offered a bow in return. ‘Dareth Jericho, Order of the Wulf.’ He extended an arm to the captain in friendship, and hoped it would be reciprocated. He had deliberately omitted his military title, as he and the various pirate factions had come to blows many a time. He hoped that they would assume he was a priest from the temple. He wore only a soiled cloak, his armour was still in the mountain pass at Sanctuary, and he silently prayed that his disguise held up to scrutiny.

Blackthorn took his hand and shook it heartily. ‘The matron will be pleased to see you.’

‘I also long to see her,’ Jericho smiled.

A sweaty, pot-bellied deckhand stepped between them, ears chock-full of gold earrings. ‘Captain, there is a dragon coming.’ He pointed aft with a hand laden with bejewelled rings.

Heads swung left and right. A mighty roar rang out that sent a shiver of fear through the crew. Panic set in, and crewmen ran here and there and gave quick glances over the bulwarks, on the lookout for the enemy. Each man hastened to fetch a weapon.

‘Helmsman, take her up as far as you dare. Man the cannons and protect the envelope at all costs. This is one captain who will not go down without a fight,’ Blackthorn yelled. ‘You there, move lively and fetch me that infernal peashooter.’

‘Peashooter?’ Jericho asked.

‘Yes, a newfangled machine from the New World; it sends a hot lead ball at a man faster than he can blink. It pierces the skin and he dies. Not as fun as a cutlass, and I’m not sure how effective it is on a dragon, but we shall test it out.’ Blackthorn chuckled.

‘Is there anything I can do?’ Jericho called above the din of men as they prepared to repel the threat.

The captain appeared momentarily stunned. He had considered this his fight, and had not expected a priest to take an active part.

‘Certainly, how fair are you with a cannon?’ Blackthorn asked.

‘I don’t know cannons but I’m good with magic.’

‘Each to their own, I suppose. I guess if you can distract the beast with your magic, we might have a chance to at least slow it down enough for us to get higher and out of his reach. Head aft and use what you can against the creature.’

Jericho nodded, headed to the rear of the ship and skirted the wheelhouse on the port side. Promptly at the order of the captain, the ship began to incline sharply and headed into the clouds, a defensive measure designed to elude an enemy. It stalled Jericho’s progress, and he was left clinging to a bulwark for grim death.

The ship suddenly lurched with a noise like thunder, and sent Jericho flying into the iron wall of the cabin. The dragon had attacked, its huge frame colliding with the side of the ship.

Jericho reached across and took a firm hold of the wooden bulwark to cast a glance over the side.

Sure enough, an enormous black beast prepared another attack run.

On its back, a hooded figure piloted from a sleek leather saddle just behind its wings. He held a rein in his hand threaded around two giant rings cast through the dragon’s nose. A deafening roar erupted from the beast and rumbled through its great chest. Jericho peered at a curious glow that emanated from the sides of an iron chest plate; it had a red hue to it, yet there was no visible reason why the light should be there. Jericho, however, knew the secret. Behind the chest plate, the dragon’s heart lay unprotected, behind a thinly armoured layer of skin.

It was nearly impossible to hit a dragon that was in control of its own mind in this spot with any measure of success. Many who had tried had either missed, or hit, but not downed the dragon, and were then consumed by its fiery breath.

A bucket of thick white liquid crashed down around him from above, and ran in slow rivulets down the deck. He looked up and he saw a pale-faced boy who gripped tightly to thick ropes that surrounded the bladder like envelope. In his left hand he held a wooden bristle brush that dripped with the same thick paste.

Jericho understood; the boy was there to seal any holes in the envelope with thin layers of leather patches that were strung around his neck. He had become unsettled when the dragon began its attack, and his paste bucket had slipped from his grasp.

Just how vulnerable were they right now, many hundreds of feet in the air? They climbed all the time, with nothing but a bag of air to hold them there. Jericho forced the thought from his mind, and instead turned to find the captain.

Finally he spotted him, aiming his peashooter at the beast off the port side. Jericho precariously slipped and slid down the deck towards the captain. The end of a black spiked tail the size of an elephant’s trunk swung past him and collided with a deckhand with a sickening thud. The unlucky soul was sent flying through the air and over the side of the ship with a terrified scream.

‘Captain?’ Jericho yelled. ‘Blackthorn?’

The skipper turned to the sound. ‘What is it?’ he yelled.

‘Aim for the dragon’s chest plate, sever it with your cannon, and we will have a chance to defeat this foe,’ Jericho hollered. The noise of the dragon and the rush of wind deafened him. ‘Behind is the dragon’s heart, we can defeat this abomination if we can get a clear shot at it.’

‘I might just have the thing.’ Blackthorn smiled. He raced off to the stern of the ship and skidded from handhold to handhold just as Jericho had.

A minute later he returned carrying a long bundle of sackcloth, and after he had struggled back up the incline, he dropped the package with a clang and finished with a few deep breaths.

He dropped to one knee and quickly undid thin strips of leather that bound the material, and extracted a six-foot-long harpoon. He looked at Jericho with a broad smile on his face.

‘For catching big fish,’ he said. ‘And they don’t come much bigger than that.’ Blackthorn pointed at the incoming creature, and then offered the harpoon to Jericho.

Jericho took the weapon and tested its weight. It was so light it felt like a ceremonial spear from the temple, yet he knew if it hit home, this would do the trick and kill with no trouble.

‘One shot, make it count.’ The captain clapped Jericho on the back, and jumped down a dark hatch cut into the middle of the deck.

Barely a minute later, several thunderous shudders rocked the ship, and to his horror he saw that the ship spat flames and smoke. He watched as the dragon swerved and dodged incoming cannonballs with ease. It was the rider, in control of the dragon, who needed to be relieved of his saddle permanently for the plan to work.

He summoned all his mental strength and soaked up the energies from the earth and sea below, and the air around him. He visualised in his mind the rider’s saddle, and as he focused on the task, his hands began to glow blue. He concentrated on the buckles, and visualised how they were fastened, and imagined he was undoing them. Several attempts and one sweaty brow later, he had, by sheer determination, unfastened one of the buckles that held the saddle to the dragon. This was enough to unseat the rider, who fell from his ride. He did not fall far, as the reins he held arrested his drop.

The rider was shaken by the fall, but soon recovered, and attempted to remount his charge. Jericho aimed a knockout spell at the rider and missed, so uncontrolled were the ship’s movements. He grabbed hold of a rope to steady himself, and took aim again with an extended arm. His whole being focused on the rider, now almost back in his saddle. He drew the necessary elemental forces from around him, and seconds later the rider was no longer a threat; he fell to the sea far below, a silent scream of shock on his face.

Without warning a pair of hands grabbed him from behind and threw him to the deck; he looked up and saw a toothy grin. ‘Be more careful, son,’ said an aged pirate, who then stomped off with a wooden leg visible below his knee.

The elderly pirate had saved Jericho from impalement by a spike from the dragon’s tail as it swished across the deck. He had been so deep in concentration, he had neglected to keep focus on the enemy’s whereabouts. But wait, this was a new dragon and a new rider.

‘Damn, just what we need,’ he cursed.

‘You can say that again,’ said Blackthorn, and offered him assistance up from the deck.

‘Have we managed to get the chest plate off yet?’ Jericho asked.

‘No, but my lads tell me we are mere minutes away from a direct hit. These things are devilishly tricky to hit. But I have some of the best marksmen at my disposal.’

‘Captain? The dragon is leaving,’ a voice yelled from a crow’s nest strapped to the side of the envelope.

Blackthorn and Jericho looked to where the crewman had pointed, and sure enough the riderless dragon had quickly disappeared into the distance, and appeared to head north.

‘Well, I’ll be. Why would it be doing that, do you think?’ Blackthorn pondered.

Amongst the thunderous discharges of the multiple cannons aboard ship, Jericho had an idea.

‘Free will. The beast regained its free will when its rider fell. The spell that bonded the pair has been broken.’ Jericho remembered the last conversation he had had with his cellmate, Silentus Madook.

‘What’s that now?’ Blackthorn asked.

‘A wizard of sufficient skill can take away the beast’s mind and control its actions. When the rider fell, the creature was able to control its own mind once more. I guess it’s going home.’

‘To the tower?’

‘I highly doubt it. Would you willingly return to captivity? I mean, they aren’t homing pigeons, after all. There were rumours of a dragon stronghold in the far north, though that was before we thought they were extinct.’

‘So I guess all we have to do is take down the rider to rid ourselves of these beasts.’ Blackthorn turned to a short, thin man near him. ‘Tell the cannon teams to aim for the rider.’

‘Aye captain.’ The wiry man saluted, and ran off at full speed.

‘I guess you won’t need that harpoon after all.’ Blackthorn raised a brow, and reached for the weapon.

The captain jerked, his head snapped back, and a look of puzzlement spread across his face. He looked down at his chest in a drunken fashion, and his eyes widened in shock. A three-foot black spike from the tail of the dragon exited his chest, glistening red with his blood. Before Jericho had chance to react, the dragon’s tail whipped the captain into the air and out of sight. Jericho was horrified at the violence of the captain’s death. He had seen death on a grand scale, but never one that involved a dragon, and it was a terrifying sight.

Panic ensued. The death of the captain shocked the crew into inaction, and now the dragon was free to pick them off one by one. Without a captain to guide the men, all was lost, and Jericho knew they would never listen to him. He was an outsider, and from their perspective he had brought bad fortune upon their heads. As superstitious as they were, it was a wonder they had not thrown him overboard already.

To his alarm, the dragon headed back, and fast. He began to run. He needed to get undercover, and quickly. He made for the main cabin, and hoped for a plan to escape this.

The dragon swooped overhead; Jericho dived, and slid into the side of the iron framework. He stood and rubbed his shoulder, now sore from the impact, and made his way to a set of wooden steps that led up to the wheelhouse. He took them two at a time and reached the main cabin door quickly. He burst inside to find the deck deserted, each member of the crew preferring to save his own soul, however he might. Yet how did one save oneself thousands of feet in the air? He looked around and spotted a wooden lever on the rear wall. Its handle was painted red and looked important. He stepped up to it, and noticed a small sign pasted above it. He wiped away a layer of dust and read: ‘In case of emergency, pull!’ He shrugged and pulled the lever.

For a moment not a lot happened. Then somewhere deep below, a rumble, followed by mechanical sounds, began to rattle the ship. He ran outside and looked over the edge of a wooden rail. Something peculiar had emerged from the sides of the ship, and he needed a better viewpoint. He looked about him and spotted a ladder set into the metal framework that followed the curved roof of the wheelhouse. He hopped onto the first of the rungs and climbed quickly.

Seconds later, he was balanced awkwardly on the roof of the cabin, and swayed with the ship. He stepped carefully to the edge of the wheelhouse and peered over. He saw that several small boats hung loosely at the starboard side of the ship, suspended by thick ropes from cast-iron hangers.

Several of the pirate crew jumped into the first of the newly acquired appendages and cast off.

The moment the boat left the ship, it dropped like a stone, and a leather patchwork envelope began to unfurl from a central pipe set into the mid section. The envelope filled with hot air from a quick-lighting furnace, and the boat slowed. The pirates were now in charge of individual smaller versions of the mother ship.

Jericho turned quickly; this was his means of escape. He headed back to the ladder and had nearly reached it when, out of the corner of his eye, a huge black shape loomed. His head whipped around, and he instinctively dove for cover. The immense black dragon, arms outstretched, made a grab for him, but missed and collided with the side of the envelope. The envelope immediately began to collapse in on itself to trap the dragon. Claws, legs and tail became entangled in the thick ropes that surrounded the air sac, with no chance of escape. The dragon began to scream, a horrific sound that threatened to burst his eardrums.

Jericho wasted no time and jumped from the roof of the cabin to the deck below, only to twist his ankle in the process. With a yelp he hobbled to the bulwark at the starboard side of the ship, to find that the escape boats had gone, and none remained.

He gripped his hair and joined the dragon, as it attempted to free itself, in a scream of frustration. He looked up into the sun-filled sky, with Er’ath’s sister planets faintly outlined.

‘Mighty Rindor, if I ever served you well, please find me a way out of this,’ he pleaded to his god.

‘Dareth Jericho, as I live and breathe,’ said a soft female voice behind him.

Jericho dropped his hands and turned to face the voice. A smile erupted across his face, for there before him stood his sister, Matron Eliana Truelove, and she smiled broadly. She wore a white bonnet and pinafore, tied around the waist, and under this she wore a blue tunic. They rushed into each other’s arms and hugged.

‘My god, Eliana, you’ve put on some weight,’ Jericho winked.

‘You need talk; you’re looking a bit grey around the gills, there, cheeky boy.’

‘It is so good to see you after all these years,’ he said, and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

‘Brother, as lovely as this is, I think you have failed to notice that this ship is sinking fast.’ She swung an arm in a wide arc to indicate the threat.

‘Of course I noticed. The sudden drop kind of gave the game away. Wait! How did you get on board?’

‘I ported here, of course,’ Truelove replied.

Jericho laughed. ‘Indeed, how stupid of me? I couldn’t port from the island, but we are far from it now.’

‘Take my hand, brother.’

‘Where are we going?’

‘To the infirmary, of course. Do you think I stopped by from the third cloud on the left?’

Jericho rolled his eyes; he had truly missed his sister, even though she still ribbed him as she had done when they were children. He quickly took off his boots and held on to them tightly.

Without further delay, he and his sister vanished with a crack. The dragon, in one last-ditch attempt to escape, let loose a fiery blaze from its nostrils. The inferno caught a hold of the envelope at lightning speed and the pirate airship with its new captive fell to its doom, engulfed in a huge ball of flames.

Truelove and Jericho landed softly inside the section of the golden temple that was her infirmary. While she donned her footwear, he looked around at the familiar surroundings and noticed that not much had changed, besides the patients. Several casualties appeared to be asleep and were in various states of healing at the hands of his sister.

The infirmary contained twenty beds in total, and had offered a place of medical care to the guard of the temple, before the incident with an incorrectly mixed growth tonic. He remembered that when the room had left the temple unexpectedly, two walls were missing, and it seemed Eliana had rebuilt the missing walls and roof section above the dormitory. At the opposite end of the room were Eliana’s comfortable living quarters, and a small surgery.

‘Come, this way, you look like you could do with a good square meal,’ said Eliana, and tugged at his arm.

He hobbled after her down the natural corridor between the beds, and took the odd glance left and right. Two of the beds, he noted, had curtains drawn, and either the occupants wanted privacy, or their injuries were exceedingly gruesome.

‘I hadn’t given it too much thought, but now you mention it, I am rather hungry,’ he replied, and his stomach rumbled in agreement.

‘It is fortunate then that I have a full pot of broth bubbling away nicely in my quarters.’

‘To be truthful, I haven’t had much of an appetite since they murdered Eraywen,’ he said, and looked suddenly pale.

Eliana stopped short. ‘Oh, Dareth, I had no idea, I am sorry. What happened?’ A hand reached across her mouth, her eyes wide in shock, and tears welled.

‘Those people back there in the tower, they were dark wizards. They used Eraywen to lure me to their lair, in an effort to have me spy for them.’ Jericho paused to allow himself to be led into Eliana’s office, and she guided him to a comfy leather chair opposite a toasty fire. There he sat and stared into the flames for a few minutes, and mourned his loss. Eliana did not prompt him, but waited patiently for him to continue.

‘We had escaped, Eraywen and I, along with a slave called Silentus, a good man. Only we were caught, and they killed her. Cold-bloodedly killed her, snuffed out her life like a candle.’ Jericho’s face contorted with pain and rage, and he struck the arm of his chair with his fist. ‘That is when I was taken to their master, Lordich Secracar.’

Eliana took a sharp breath at the name. ‘But surely you are mistaken. The man is dead.’

‘I wish I were mistaken, sister. No, he is very much alive thanks to a little deal he did with Death. Tell me though, how is it you were passing the black tower?’

‘I was blown off course by an unusually high wind that caught my sail. I had to winch it in for fear it would rip from the mast.’

‘You have a mast?’

‘Oh yes. That, and much more.’

‘Tell me, how do the pirates find you up here? All alone, I might add,’ Jericho questioned curiously, eager to change the subject.

‘That, dear brother, is a closely guarded secret, and one I will not divulge. These pirates are seriously misunderstood.’

‘Misunderstood? They are liable to cut your throat as look at you. Why do you help these men?’

‘I promised the gods and made a vow to help all those in need of medical care, regardless of creed, colour, religion or background. I have made this my life’s work.’

‘You don’t miss the Brotherhood, your home, me?’ Jericho asked, in the hope he would trigger in his sister a desire to return home.

‘Oh, terribly, but my help is needed here. You have many fine healers at the temple. The pirates, however, have none, well, none that wouldn’t think twice about amputating a damaged limb of a shipmate, when a simple healing potion would have cured the man. These people need expert care, and I’m the one to provide it.’

‘That you are, sister, that you are.’ Jericho nodded, barely able to control the disappointment in his voice. ‘Since I cannot persuade you to give up this endeavour of yours, it is imperative we make all haste to the temple. The Archmage needs to hear what I have to say.’

‘Very well, I shall make preparations and then I shall return to my work. You, in the meantime, please eat something.’ Truelove handed him a bowl of broth that swirled with steam.

He took it and looked at it, no longer hungry. Now that he had time to think, he was clouded by grief; his wife’s death was akin to a knife through the heart.

Eliana Truelove left him sat in his chair to stare at his bowl. She furrowed her brow in concern for him, and a tear ran down her cheek that she wiped away with her sleeve. She had fond memories of Eraywen. Even as a child they had played together, and now to lose her so young wrenched her heart.

She left Jericho where he sat, raced to the farthest corner of the dormitory, and pushed aside a secret door set within a dusty old bookcase. It swung aside to reveal a dark and narrow staircase that led upwards. She slipped inside, and wound her way to the top as quickly as she dared. At the top, she opened a small wooden door. Sunlight made her squint, and she was forced to shield her eyes from the glare.

She entered a brightly lit room. The space itself was aft of the infirmary and was minus a rear wall. Only a thick rope cordoned off the drop.

The paintwork had lost much of its finesse, the weather had not agreed with it. Any furniture had long been removed and replaced with an oddly shaped contraption in the centre of the room that included a large ship’s compass sitting in a wooden frame, and a tiller that hung from the edge of the room.

Eliana glanced at a map of the known continents of Er’ath that had been pinned to the wall opposite her. From this crude document, and a check of the sun, she determined the necessary course. Once done, she manoeuvred the wooden tiller to make the desired course correction. All the while she kept half an eye on the compass for accuracy. Satisfied, she lashed the control to its current heading and grasped a second handle that protruded from a wooden wheel. She turned this with vigour, and listened to the sounds of the mast rising from its horizontal position to vertical. She felt the building heave as the wind caught the sail and altered their course. Completed, she locked the handle in place, and then wiped her sweaty brow as she retreated from the room.

She entered her study a few minutes later to find Jericho asleep in his chair, and his food untouched. She quietly retrieved a woollen blanket, carefully draped it across her brother, and then joined him in the chair opposite. She would let him sleep, that was the best medicine.

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Sceptic Film Premiere.

February 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Off to a red carpet, black tie, film premiere.

Categories: General

DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Nine.

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

ENLIGHTENMENT

Curator Menin sat heavily in a comfortable leather armchair and gave a deep sigh. Her recently rebuilt office was shiny and new, however, she looked grave. Coinin had explained to her in graphic detail the events that surrounded Death, and his plans.

‘This is very serious. I must speak with the Archmage immediately,’ Curator Menin decided, and then almost as an afterthought, ‘you must come too.’

‘Where are we going?’ Coinin asked.

Menin appeared hesitant to tell him, but he could see that almost immediately her mind was made up.

‘Once a year the Archmage must venture forth on a great pilgrimage. There he must seek council with the gods and pray for wisdom and guidance for thirty days,’ Menin replied.

‘Where is this place?’

‘That I cannot tell you; it is a secret passed down from Archmage to Archmage.’

‘You are not an Archmage,’ Coinin accused.

‘Indeed. It is true I am not sworn into office yet, but the intent is there.’ Menin winked. ‘Come now, hold my hand.’

‘Why do I need to go?’ Coinin asked wearily. He was tired of being pushed from pillar to post.

‘I know that the Archmage will wish to speak with you, and more so considering the importance of your message,’ Menin replied.

Coinin held Menin’s hand lightly and observed a sound that hung in the air and resembled a hum, quiet at first, but then gradually grew louder. A bright white light appeared ahead of him, and formed a ball of intense brilliance. A rush of air and the room appeared to fold in on itself to form a tunnel of swirling luminescence. Together, Menin and Coinin were sucked into the vortex headfirst. Coinin felt dizzy as he whirled around the tunnel of light, his body contorted and elongated to impossible proportions. The sensation did not last long, however, before Menin and he landed on soft grass with a bump.

It took a moment for his senses to attune to the new surroundings. He retched and evacuated his stomach contents, to a chuckle from Menin. She clapped him on the back whilst he bent double, his hands on his knees.

‘That always happens the first time. You will get used to it.’

Coinin looked at her like she was crazy, but then something new overwhelmed him. He realised now how quiet it was, tranquil he thought. He felt an inner peace wash over him like a tide and all his worries and cares seemed to fade to nothingness. A sweet smell of honey seemed to permeate the air, and in the distance, songbirds uttered a multitude of morning calls.

He had not noticed until now that a figure a few feet away, clad in brilliant white, sat cross-legged and watched the morning sun rise.

Menin and he had appeared on top of a cliff that overlooked a glassy sea. The sun in the west cast long shadows wherever it met an obstacle.

Coinin was surprised to see that the figure in white had an odd addition to his shadow, what appeared to be a set of majestic open wings. Yet, when he looked at the physical presence, no such appendage existed.

Coinin sensed this man was special, a spiritual being of significant importance.

The Archmage turned and faced Coinin with his head cocked. He wore a hood that cast a dark shadow and hid his face from view.

‘Please join me,’ said Archmage Orodor softly with a pat of the lush green grass at his side.

Curator Menin beat Coinin to it, and made herself comfortable beside Orodor. She turned and nodded at Coinin, and then indicated he should do as asked.

He sat next to Orodor, who turned to face him and dropped his hood. There sat not an old man but a boy of roughly twelve. The beard had gone, as had the wrinkled prune of a face. Instead, the prepubescent boy stared back at him.

The boy mage swept long blonde hair out of his eyes with a smooth young hand, and smiled at Coinin with pearly white teeth.

‘Archmage Orodor?’ Coinin asked, and looked from Menin to the boy, confused.

‘You look somewhat perplexed; here moments ago I was an old man at the end of my life, now I am what you see before you,’ Orodor chuckled.

‘I admit I’m surprised, and I confess, puzzled.’

‘If you were not, I would warrant that you were as wise as the gods themselves,’ Orodor said. ‘I have reached the end of my physical life–’

‘You are dead?’ Coinin interrupted, and received a stern look from Menin.

‘Death has such a finality to it. I prefer to think of my passing as a new adventure, as if one were stepping through an unfamiliar door. This is my reward for service, to spend eternity gazing upon the beautiful vista before you, never wanting or needing for anything as long as I choose to. Should I wish it, I would be welcome to reside with the gods. However, I thought I would give it at least a couple of millennia before deciding my next journey. My role now is to watch over the peoples on the troublesome rock called Er’ath. I am to act as go-between for the gods and the new Archmage, Menin.’ Orodor turned and smiled warmly at her.

Menin had a tear in her eye, and it was obvious she had no idea Orodor had passed to his new existence so suddenly and without the usual preparations. ‘Brother Orodor, you will be missed so. It will be difficult to tell the others.’

‘Let my passing not hurt so, sister, you will see me regularly on your visits. I have now replaced Archmage Turlock in this role. She has taken leave to reside with the gods. This has been the way for millennia,’ Orodor continued, grasping Menin’s arm fondly, ‘and no doubt will remain so for millennia to come.’

‘It is hard to say goodbye.’ Menin sniffed.

‘Do not fret; I am in a better place.’ Orodor smiled.

‘So there is a better life after death than the one I witnessed with my parents,’ Coinin mused.

‘Not only better, but considerably more rewarding.’

‘Why am I here, Archmage?’

Orodor pondered his response a moment. ‘I must enlighten you of a task set before you.’

‘Listen, I don’t want any more tasks, I just want to go home.’

‘As did I when I received the Office of Archmage, but the gods were kind and showed me the path my life would take in a vision. In fact it led right up to this point.’

‘You knew when you would be talking to me, now, on this hill?’ Coinin asked disbelievingly.

‘I didn’t know the day or the hour, but I sensed it was drawing closer. That kind of happens when you get to my age. I have to say, you do bear a remarkable resemblance to the boy in my vision.’

‘This task? Is it destiny again?’

‘Ah yes, the greatest of all annoyances. The eternal battle between choice and what is foretold. It is not my favourite of subjects. I hear you too despise it?’

‘It’s all I’ve heard since meeting up with you people, and yes, it is quite annoying,’ said Coinin, perhaps a little too snappily.

‘Honest to the core, I like this boy. That is why I am not going to talk to you about your destiny, but that of Er’ath. You see, the world does revolve, day to night, and the sun rises and sets without fail, but who controls these things? Not the races of this land, but the gods. Hence why you are here. They have seen fit to invite you into their presence so that you may know how you can best serve them.’

‘The gods are here?’ Coinin looked worried.

‘Not quite. I, as their representative, speak for them now.’ Orodor smiled. ‘The wish of the gods is that you take the Office of Curator at the Brotherhood of the Wulf temple, and lead our forces in war against all who try to defile her.’

‘Laliala already asked me to be Curator. I’m not sure about that,’ Coinin confessed.

A look of disappointment passed over Orodor’s eyes, not for Coinin, but for Laliala. ‘You told him?’

‘It was the only way I could shut him up.’

Orodor laughed out loud and stood up, and then began to pace in front of Coinin.

‘What am I going to do with you? The simple truth is, you and your brother are, by my calculations, the last in the line of a once great and noble family. Coupled with that greatness is responsibility. You see, each of the four houses of Rostha, has, or had, a duty to protect Rosthagaar and the lands that surrounded her from all manner of troubles. Unfortunately, High King Hantestum of Rosthagaar has defied the gods and they are understandably angry.’

Orodor went on to recount a tale of the God Rindor who had restored peace to the land thousands of years ago, and the creation of a new rulership, which, alongside the Brotherhood of the Wulf, maintained order and belief in the true gods. That was until fifty years ago. It was then that Jibril Hantestum rose to power, and killed his brother who had the rightful claim to the throne of Rosthagaar. He then cut down the four Kings who held joint rule in each of the lands that surrounded his Kingdom.

Because of this action, Hantestum had unwittingly broken a decree by the gods that each of the four houses should guard one of Rindor’s four sacred swords and present them before him every thousand years.

‘In five years’ time Rindor will descend to reunite the four Swords of Cerathil with the Unity Sword and he will be unable to perform this task. His anger, I fear, will know no bounds,’ Orodor finished.

‘What does that mean?’

‘He may punish those who failed to heed his words. Who is to say?’

‘I don’t mean to interrupt, but Coinin here has some important news, Archmage,’ said Menin.

‘Let’s hear it then.’

Coinin spent the next several minutes describing in detail his meeting with Death and his desire for his name to be placed in the Scroll of Life.

‘I suspected as much,’ Orodor nodded. ‘If he succeeds, then he is one step closer to becoming king of the gods, and I now believe from what you have told me that he is likely responsible for directing Hantestum to seize power, thereby potentially preventing the reuniting of the swords. Alongside this action, he will need his name to be restored to ascend to the heavens to seize control.’

‘That makes the most sense,’ said Coinin.

‘I desire that alongside your duties at the temple, that you focus your efforts on obtaining the Swords of Cerathil,’ said Orodor. ‘But for that to happen, you need to accept the Office of Curator, and more importantly, your destiny.’

Marrok, in Coinin’s absence, had spent time in isolation, unsure of his brother’s next steps. He knew Coinin was with Menin when he had partaken of the festivities in the dining hall, so was not immediately worried that he could not find him.

He mulled over his own future, which he was certain was to ensure Coinin fulfilled his destiny. Desperate for answers, and with Coinin gone, he volunteered to help with the temple cleanup. Secretly though, the overriding reason for offering his services was to get close to a young woman he had set his heart upon. He had first seen her sitting two rows behind in the Great Hall during Menin’s call to arms speech, prior to the battle three weeks ago, and again last night, as she danced with him.

He had greeted the young woman cautiously at first, not keen to rush his approach, quite unlike his usual brash style. He was not inclined to scare the loveliness away before he had had a chance to court her.

He had learnt that her name was Talina, and that she was part elf. Her mother, a human, had won the heart of an influential elf after he had been injured in battle, and she had tended to him, much to the chagrin of his fellow elfs. The family were cast out of Astanoth before her birth, and she grew up close to the borders of her former home, never able to set foot into elfish land while her father lived. Of course as time wore on, and with the death of her father five years ago, the memory of his betrayal had faded.

Talina was finally allowed back home, and this as it happened was not due to her father’s demise; the elfen population had waned due to battles and pestilence that had plagued the land, which devastated the populace.

The elfen leaders felt that they needed to encourage outcasts and half-elfs to make home there and again rebuild the society. It was a blessing and a curse. With so many undesirables present, the city guards often found it difficult to maintain order.

She had often visited Astanoth with the Brotherhood, as an assistant to Master Brostix, a temple envoy, while on his regularly scheduled visits to the lands of Er’ath, often on critical peacekeeping or trade missions.

Marrok had, over the past few hours, listened to her talk, and soaked in every detail of her personage. Her beauty was breathtaking, and her slightly pointed ears aroused him, to the point that every time he looked at her he blushed. Talina paid no heed, nor did she make mention of this. Instead she offered him a winning smile that only served to melt his heart further.

He had not said very much to her at all, just grunted in all the right places, and he had observed that she would often take little glances at him. He was sure on more than one occasion that she too had flushed brightly.

There was one electric moment when both he and Talina had reached for a pail of water at the exact same moment, only for their hands to meet on the rope handle. An instant tingle shot up his spine and for the first time in many years he was genuinely happy in that moment.

‘Talina…’ Marrok faltered. ‘I don’t want to seem presumptuous, but I would very much like it if you would walk with me tonight. I hear there will be a spectacular moon.’

Talina smiled sweetly. ‘I thought you’d never ask,’ she said. ‘I would love to.’

Marrok flushed and looked away. Inside he whooped happily.

‘I must admit, I am no further forward in determining how to obtain the Swords of Cerathil,’ Orodor remarked.

‘It’s a pity Trenobin is dead, he owned a Sword of Cerathil, I have seen it,’ Coinin responded sadly. ‘In fact, thinking about it, we will find it on his wall at his home right now.’

‘Of course, I had forgotten, his family was one of the original four chosen by Rindor to rule alongside Rostha. I guess when Hantestum cut them down, the family kept the sword. That is good news indeed.’

‘I will send a troop of men to recover this sword immediately upon my return,’ Menin offered.

‘Yes, yes, please do,’ said Orodor absently. ‘That’s two down, and two to go.’

‘Two?’ Coinin asked.

‘Yes, Trenobin had one. The other is held within a lower chamber of the temple. There is a fifth sword secured in the Tower of Elyia at Castle Rostha. This is Rindor’s Unity sword which is used to unite the four, along with the Rose of Cerathil that Menin now wears around her neck.’

‘How hard can it be to obtain the swords?’ Coinin asked. ‘I take it the swords are regional?’

‘Regional?’ Menin asked.

‘Yes, Trenobin’s belonged to the dwarves, and I guess the temple sword belongs to humankind,’ Coinin replied thoughtfully.

‘Very perceptive, yes indeed, and I think you know which regions that leaves?’ said Orodor solemnly.

‘I would say elven, giant and Madorine. Do you think the swords still exist?’ Coinin asked.

‘The giants were never in possession of a sword and undoubtedly they still exist. Rindor, I am sure, would have had something to say, should his swords have been destroyed,’ Orodor declared. ‘Besides, I do not believe they could be destroyed by mortal hand.’

‘What importance do the swords hold for Rindor?’ Coinin enquired.

‘That is a good question, and one I am unsure if I should answer. The response itself may betray a trust, not something I’m accustomed to. Then again, the response may aid us in our search.’

‘I hate to make decisions like that, never knowing if the choice you make is the right one,’ Coinin nodded.

‘Life is full of them, but on reflection, I have decided it would be best if you know the full facts. Without them, our search may not be as easy as we first thought.’ Orodor took a deep breath. ‘Taminoth, the Goddess Taminoth, confided in me the reasoning behind Rindor’s insistence that the Swords of Cerathil be joined once every thousand years.’ Orodor paused. ‘If the swords are not united, he cannot rule over the other gods. You see, they themselves set down a commandment that if the ruling god endeared himself to his peoples, the swords would most likely be united by his creation, and he was free to reign for a further one thousand years. If the peoples hated their god, the likelihood that they would follow his commands was less than certain, and that cast doubt over his ability to rule. If the swords are not united, then his brothers and sister are free to challenge him to rule.’

‘You said brothers. There are only three gods,’ Coinin corrected.

‘Have you forgotten so soon? Mort is also a brother of Rindor, and has claim to the throne, but he cannot do so while his name remains hidden from the Scroll of Life,’ Orodor replied.

‘Do you think that Rindor would destroy the peoples of Er’ath if we failed to unite the swords?’ Coinin asked.

‘He certainly would have a right to do so if we failed in our duty, but I do not wish to wait for five years to find out.’

‘So I guess we need to go hunting for these swords and stop the worst happening.’ Menin spoke thoughtfully, already forming a plan.

Orodor looked at her grimly. ‘Sadly, not all of us will join in the search.’

Menin cocked her head and frowned. ‘How so?’

‘The boy here is to take office as Curator; you are to be sworn into office as Archmage. As a consequence of that unique position, we never do battle, nor do we have leave to gallivant around the world in search of lost treasure,’ Orodor replied bluntly.

‘You mean I cannot aid Coinin in his search for the swords?’ said Menin, crestfallen.

‘Now hold on, who said I had to find them?’ Coinin frowned.

‘You can and must lead the way. You will not be defenceless in your task. We will teach you skills beyond imagining, and befitting the Office of Curator. Sanctioned with the protection of the Brotherhood of the Wulf, you will find safe haven in all the lands we hold sway.’ Orodor gestured grandly. ‘Additionally, you will have to hand the finest of warriors and battlemages.’

‘Orodor, I do not think the boy is ready for such an undertaking. Perhaps if we delay my oath of office, I can lead my men to victory,’ said Menin with a hint of desperation.

‘No, Laliala.’ Orodor turned to Coinin. ‘My boy, for that is what you are, I ask so much. Will you take the Office of Curator and guide my people, excuse me, Menin’s people with your strength, courage and spirituality to defeat the dark forces that work to enslave us, and ultimately save all who inhabit Er’ath from sure and certain destruction?’

‘It’s true you ask so much.’ Coinin lowered his head. ‘Answer me this one question truthfully, and I will no longer resist you.’

‘By all means my dear boy,’ Orodor agreed.

‘I am but a boy of seventeen. Why have you chosen me and not a scholar who has worked tirelessly at the temple for fifty years?’

Orodor stood and paced and carefully considered his reply. His hand absentmindedly caressed his chin where once grew three yards of grey beard.

Coinin played with dirty fingernails while he waited patiently for the former Archmage’s considered response.

It was a full five minutes before Orodor stopped short and faced Coinin.

‘Your father went to great pains to protect you and begin your training. To all within the order, your father left to marry your mother. In part this is true, but in reality he left at my instruction.’ Orodor again plucked at his nonexistent beard. ‘You see, your mother was already with child, a long-awaited event foretold by the gods. This one would command armies to victory over an evil that threatened the land. Of course I talk about Marrok.’

‘Marrok?’

‘Indeed, Marrok is to command your troops. He will become a fine general and lead your troops to many victories. All he lacks is foresight and direction. That is where you become valuable. The gifts you possess and those you will learn in the coming years will serve you well. You will be able to offer Marrok guidance and purpose. Without you, he will be lost. You are the binding force that will unite the Brotherhood on your quest to rid this world of darkness and evil. I know your misgivings surrounding destiny are great, but know this: your rise to greatness was foretold countless generations ago, and is manifest in all our teachings. You are the chosen one who will lead Soliath Wulf’s people to a new enlightenment.’

Orodor scratched his head before continuing. ‘Besides all that, do it for your parents who suffered to protect you. Let not their sacrifice go unrewarded.’

It was Coinin’s turn to be silent. He carefully weighed his options and allowed all that was said to him to sink in.

‘If I refuse?’ he said with a raised brow.

‘Then there’s a good chance Er’ath will be decimated by Mort if he becomes High King of the gods, and an equal chance Rindor will exact some form of punishment,’ Orodor answered.

‘I assume you’ve tried obtaining the swords before now.’

‘Yes, without success.’

‘Is it set in stone then that I will agree to follow my destiny?’

Orodor chuckled. ‘Yes, but what is important is whether you do so freely or begrudgingly. What is unclear is if you will succeed, and is a matter of faith that the prophecy that surrounds you and Marrok has been correctly interpreted.’

Coinin nodded. ‘So then we have to prevent a war in the heavens from destroying this planet. Well, I guess we can’t let that happen, can we? What must I do?’

Orodor smiled hugely before answering. ‘Training, and plenty of it. However, first you must undergo a sacred rite of passage and be inducted into the Brotherhood of the Wulf.’

‘This should be interesting,’ Menin smiled.

‘Why?’ Coinin asked, curious.

‘You will see.’

DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Eight.

January 21, 2018 Leave a comment

MORT’S PLAN

Unbeknown to Coinin, Marrok had barely moved from his bedside for almost three weeks, much to the disapproval of Matron Rod’lin. He had slept beside Coinin and talked to him almost without pause in the hope that something would revive him, and yet his brother remained asleep.

The last thing that Coinin remembered was falling into the fiery pit, before being snapped awake in unfamiliar surroundings. The whole place was magical, if you could call it a place. There was no land or skies, just whiteness, apart from the oasis-like patch of the greenest of grasses upon which he sat. There was light everywhere as if a distant sun beat down upon him, and a solitary palm tree offered him shade. He looked about him and spotted a river nearby, where a big brown bear was thankfully engrossed in catching salmon and had not spotted him. His instinct was to run, but the air held a musical note that calmed him and made him sway slightly.

Coinin moved off in the opposite direction to the bear. As each foot came down, a fresh patch of grass would erupt from the white, and then disappear as his foot left it. He felt certain that he had been to this place before. Was this the same place where an unearthly voice had shown him the key to defeat the enemy at the gates of the temple? The answer, he was sure, would present itself before long.

As if someone had listened to his thoughts, a ghostly figure in white began to form ahead of him. He stopped walking, unwilling to go any further, until the figure turned to face him and beckoned. He felt compelled to do as bidden. It was a woman with long golden hair.

‘Hello, Coinin. I am glad you could visit me,’ the woman said. A sweet smile lit her face.

Coinin felt strangely at ease with the woman, and smiled back.

‘I presume when you say visit that means I’m not dead?’

‘That’s my boy, as intelligent as ever. Our time is short, and I intend to use it to the full.’

‘I have a strange feeling that I know you,’ said Coinin.

The woman chuckled. ‘You should, I am your mother, or at least I was in the physical realm.’

Coinin was stunned; it could not possibly be true. ‘My mother has been dead for many years.’

‘That’s correct, I have,’ the woman said sadly. ‘I understand you will have some reservations, but be assured, I am your mother, yet I reside in a new plane of existence.’

Coinin raised a sceptical eyebrow, unsure how to respond. ‘A new plane of what?’

‘I am dead to you in the physical realm, but my soul endures here forever. We are in a place between places, a spirit realm, if you please.’

‘I thought when you die, you ascended to Ædeen, the garden of the gods.’

‘A lavish tale meant to appease the masses,’ Godwen replied simply. ‘In essence it is Death himself that determines your destination, based on your past deeds. Ascendance to Ædeen is not guaranteed.’

‘If you are my mother, then you will know that she was a hardworking, honest, god-fearing woman,’ Coinin began.

‘Indeed I am.’ Godwen smiled.

‘Then answer me this. If you are that woman, why haven’t you ascended to Ædeen? Why are you here in this place?’

‘Death has his reasons; there are thousands of people just like me waiting for their judgement from Death as to their journey’s end,’ she replied, and threw her arms wide in frustration. ‘Do you know how lonely it is here? If your father is here, I haven’t seen him these many years, and that hurts the most.’

Tears formed in her eyes and ran down her face. In that moment Coinin knew that this indeed was the spirit of his long dead mother. He tried to grasp her into a hug, and fell on his face as he passed through her body.

‘I am sorry, Coinin, I truly am, but we can never embrace in this place,’ said Godwen.

Coinin did not say a word as he lay there in the white nothingness and sobbed, as a patch of grass grew beneath him. Godwen was beside herself and tried to comfort him, but without touch, she did the only thing she knew. She sat next to him and sang a lullaby that she had often recited to him as a child.

Coinin’s muffled voice called to his mother to stop; the memory was too much to bear. After all these years, he was finally able to say a proper goodbye to her, but he did not want to, he wanted to keep this moment forever and let time stand still, so that he might spend it with her, and then perhaps find his father.

‘No, Coinin, you cannot stay,’ said Godwen, who had stopped her lullaby mid-sentence.

‘How did you know?’

‘There is much that I do not know. Your desire to stay cries out to me. But you cannot stay here; this is not a place for the living. Besides, you have a brother who even now sits at your side in the hope that you may return to him.’

‘He will learn to live without me; I will find a way to stay,’ said Coinin, and raised his head to look Godwen in the eye defiantly.

‘Your death would crush your brother, and I would never allow it. Do you think I wish my own son dead? No, I do not, that would hurt me beyond words,’ said Godwen. ‘Once our business is concluded, you will return to your body and follow your destiny.’

Godwen had hit a nerve. Coinin jumped up. ‘Destiny! What do I know of destiny?’ He flung his arms in the air. ‘Everybody talks about a great destiny, but they speak in riddles and half answers. Well, I do not want this destiny, if there is such a thing.’

‘It’s not like you have much choice, son. Destiny is the predetermination of the course that your life will take,’ said Godwen. ‘You cannot change what must be.’

‘So you were always destined to die so young?’ said Coinin angrily.

‘Yes, I was,’ Godwen replied, and then looked away, sad.

‘Then I will defy destiny. I will look destiny in the eye and call it a thief who steals free thought and loved ones. I challenge destiny to hold true to mine, and neither will I follow the path it has chosen. I choose my own course in life.’

‘Son, you cannot go against it. You may believe you follow your own path, but it has already been laid out for you.’ Godwen sighed. ‘You must follow the wishes of the gods to the letter and not stray from that path.’

‘I simply cannot believe that. I am in charge of my life, and my own decisions, not the gods,’ Coinin growled.

‘Again you fail to see the truth. You are of course in control of your life and decisions. However, one element of your life is irrevocably set in stone, and all your choices in life, whether you try to go left or right, will ultimately lead you to reach your destiny.’ Godwen frowned. Her son appeared pained by this news, and she did not know how she could help him.

‘If it is the will of the gods that I fulfil my destiny, then I demand that they explain to me what it is, because I tire of not knowing. If they cannot do this, then it is best that I throw myself into a volcano. Let’s see how my destiny holds up to that.’

Godwen was shocked into silence.

‘Why is it my boy always had a hard time doing as he was told, or foretold in this case?’ the deep gravelly voice of Ædelmær questioned behind them.

Godwen and Coinin whirled around to see Ædelmær smiling broadly at them.

‘It is good to see you both.’ Ædelmær’s eyes danced with joy.

‘Papa?’ Coinin’s eyebrows raised in expectation.

‘It is I,’ Ædelmær winked, ‘and not before time by the sound of things.’ He turned to Godwen and held her close. ‘It’s good to hold you again.’

Godwen looked her husband in the eyes and tears flowed. ‘I missed you so much.’

‘I missed you too.’

Coinin felt a pang of distress that he could touch neither parent.

Ædelmær looked up at Coinin quizzically from the shoulder of his wife, and tried to make sense of his son’s reluctance to acquiesce to his fate.

He released Godwen and faced his son. ‘Did I or did I not teach you to always obey your mother, boy?’

Coinin looked at the visage of his father, his face surly. ‘How can I obey the dead?’

‘It is just as well we are not dead then,’ Ædelmær responded. ‘At least not until Death makes his decision.’

Coinin looked confused, and rightly so. ‘What do you mean you aren’t dead? Mother said–’

‘Godwen says a lot of things, but she missed out a crucial matter that you should know,’ said Ædelmær, and deliberately did not look at Godwen and her steely stare.

‘Ædelmær, we do not need to burden the boy any further, please,’ Godwen pleaded.

‘He has a right to know.’

‘A right to know what exactly?’ Coinin looked from one to the other in search of an answer.

‘We may never leave this place; we will remain in limbo until certain events transpire,’ Ædelmær responded.

‘That is correct,’ a cold, raspy voice called from the whiteness.

The voice made Coinin shiver, and the temperature plummeted as the white around them turned a shade of light blue.

The air felt oppressive, and the very breath had been sucked out of him. His chest was tight, and he felt the urge to run. No one would have blamed him, for out of a mist that had formed a lone figure floated towards them. The newcomer wore the blackest of robes, with an oversized hood that hid the face. His clothes were old, little more than rags that flapped about him, and gave the figure an eerie presence. Coinin was more concerned with the eight-foot scythe the tall figure carried and the off-white skeletal hand that grasped its shaft.

The creature, as this was obviously not a man, towered above Coinin and studied him with a slightly cocked head. The shadowed face was not discernible under the cloak, yet Coinin felt eyes searching his features, for what, he did not know. All of a sudden the creature spoke, making him jump.

‘You are not on my list, not for some time, and yet you are here. Explain how you have entered my domain,’ the raspy voice demanded.

‘I cannot answer.’ Coinin gulped.

‘You dare defy Death?’

‘I cannot answer you because I do not know.’

‘This is unacceptable. I will not have souls of the living enter my home uninvited,’ Death raged.

‘This is your home?’

‘Why would it not be?’ the creature snapped. ‘My appointment may require me to appear thus, but that does not mean that my home must also be uninviting.’

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend.’

The figure turned three times, and in wisps of black smoke transformed into the familiar shape of a man. ‘That is better,’ he said. ‘It hurts my back staying in that form.’

Coinin was taken aback. The horrid creature before him now appeared to be an average man of around forty years old, with long black hair, greying at the temples, yet still the eyes shone red and appeared to resemble those of a goat. The cloak had gone, in favour of a doublet.

‘May I present myself? The name is Mort.’ He held out a hand to shake, but Coinin stood fast.

The figure rolled his eyes, and spoke with an altogether more pleasant voice. Gone was the rasp. ‘It is simple; each of us has a dark side, and you’ve seen that side of me, my work persona, or Death. Mort is the face my wife sees every evening.’

‘Death has a wife? I mean, you are still Death even now?’ Coinin asked.

‘For millennia now, yes. Between you and me, my job is monotonous. I need a change of profession, and I think that is where you could come in handy.’ Mort put a hand on Coinin’s shoulder and then led him aside.

Coinin instantly felt chilled to the bone at Mort’s touch, and wished he would remove the hand. He did not like where this encounter was headed.

‘For untold years I’ve watched my brothers and sisters reap the benefits of being gods to the people. Adoration, love, and worship is bestowed upon them, and what do I get? I am screamed at by terrified people, who see me as nothing more than a harbinger of death. I am despised, hated, and reviled. I am far more than what you see. I used to paint and throw pots, and play a merry tune upon the lute, would you believe? My brothers, with the help of my sister and me, created man and all the other creatures of Er’ath thousands of years ago. Then time came to apportion responsibilities, such as who controls war, love, and the arts. One night, my elder brother Rindor persuaded me into playing a game of chance, the loser of which would spend eternity collecting the dead. It was a role none of us wished.’

‘You obviously lost,’ Coinin observed dryly.

‘Not by any fair means, I assure you. He wanted to be king of the gods and therefore stacked the deck in his favour.’ Mort shook his head.

‘How do you know he cheated?’ Coinin asked. ‘He might just be an excellent player.’

‘If that were true, I would never have beaten him at every card game we ever played up until then,’ Mort snapped. ‘Besides, several hundred years ago my sister Taminoth let slip that Rindor had cheated.’ Mort scowled.

‘If you’re Rindor’s brother, then that makes you a god. So why have I never heard of you?’ Coinin asked.

‘I am there, as Mort, in the ancient texts, though sadly I was written out of the scrolls a thousand years ago by some eager young priest keen to keep the idea from the people that the gods were somehow responsible for death. I mean, who would want to worship a being whose brother marked their family members for death, and then collected their souls?’

‘You have a point there,’ Coinin agreed.

‘That is why, thinking about it, I am glad you are here. I need you to do a little something for me.’

‘Is this to do with my destiny?’

‘In a way, yes, it is. You already know you will become Curator of the Brotherhood of the Wulf, and with it hold the keys to the vaults of the golden temple. Within, securely locked away, you will find proof that what I say is true. I ask only one thing: that you restore my name to its rightful place.’ Mort looked into the distance, a faraway expression on his face.

‘Why can’t you do this yourself?’

‘I may be a god, but even with that comes limitations. I cannot manipulate objects in the same manner as you do.’

‘No, you only manipulate people into doing your bidding.’ Ædelmær scowled behind them.

Mort, swift of motion, caught Ædelmær by the throat and squeezed.

‘You were saying?’ Mort demanded.

‘Stop! What are you doing?’ Coinin pleaded.

‘This insolent soul dares to insult me,’ Mort spat.

‘How can it be an insult, when the facts speak for themselves?’ said Godwen. ‘Go on, Death; tell him. I urge you to tell my son the truth.’

Mort looked even more furious, and let go of Ædelmær, who dropped silently and clutched at his throat. He turned to Coinin, who was sickened to see the skin on Mort’s face peel away to reveal muscle and sinew, intertwined with maggots that ate their way through the flesh.

‘You see, Coinin, he cannot keep up the pretence,’ said Godwen. ‘Even his face is something evil.’

‘Silence, woman!’ Mort hissed.

Godwen continued resolutely. ‘He has a two-part plan. He needs you to restore his name into the Scroll of Life, so that he may rise from this hell and raise an army in his quest to overthrow his brother.’

The skin on Mort’s face was all but gone, leaving a pale skull that glistened in the light. ‘I said silence, wench!’ He struck Godwen with such force that she was lifted off her feet and fell several feet away.

‘No!’ Coinin screamed, and ran to his mother, who lay and cradled her jaw.

‘He lied to you; he is trapped here as punishment from his brother, for attempting to overthrow the High King millennia ago. By decree of the gods he is to remain here forever.’ Godwen winced in pain. ‘All Curators are forbidden to speak of him, or restore him to the Scroll of Life. To do so could be the undoing of the world. You must hold fast to that decree and defy Death.’

‘Who says he wouldn’t do a better job at ruling than the other three?’

‘He is pure evil. His bloodthirsty armies would march over the lands of Er’ath and consume all life that is good, and then they would mount an attack on the gods and imprison them in the same manner as he, most likely,’ said Ædelmær.

‘What have the gods ever done for me?’ Coinin became angry. ‘They took you from me, and all I’ve seen is death and destruction this past day or so, with more to come no doubt.’

‘You are wrong Coinin, the gods never took us from you.’ Godwen pointed to Death. ‘He did. Everyone dies, but he enjoys the taking of life. Our deaths have been part of his grand scheme since your birth.’

‘He killed you so that he could one day ask me to do his bidding?’ Coinin looked at Death with revulsion.

‘Yes, he did.’

‘If I refuse to become Curator, Death doesn’t get his day,’ said Coinin.

‘You cannot anger the gods in that manner; you must follow your destiny. Your life depends on it,’ said Godwen quietly.

‘Why is it so important that I do this?’ Coinin demanded through gritted teeth.

‘If you do not do this, another may come to take your place who is weak-willed and will restore Mort’s name in the scroll. You are a good man. Will you see mankind destroyed, and watch innocent people die?’

Before Coinin could reply, Death wrenched him by the shoulder.

‘Enough of this! In my domain, your parents still feel pain, boy. Do as I ask, or I will make them suffer for an eternity.’

‘Do not listen to him. Your mother and I are not what matters; think of Marrok, what pain he would endure should this monster win,’ Ædelmær pleaded.

‘You matter to me,’ said Coinin, pained by his father’s words.

‘Coinin Wulf! Stop being a child. There is more at stake here than us. Go now,’ Godwen ordered.

‘Yes, go now. But know this, Coinin Wulf, I will make you suffer if you defy me,’ said Death menacingly.

Coinin raised his head and faced the devilish creature that circled him slowly. ‘You already have, the moment you took away my family. No deal!’

Death rose to his full height and roared at the young man who defied him. He lunged at Coinin and grasped him in his skeletal hands. Death grew steadily taller by the moment. He brought the terrified young man close to his faceless skull.

‘Then so be it. Now begone!’ Death spat at him.

Death raised Coinin high above his head and slammed him hard to the ground. Instead of colliding with a solid object, however, he passed through the floor as if it were a cloud.

He emerged from Death’s realm, and saw the circle of Er’ath below him. He hurtled towards the planet at immense speed. The continents visible below the cloud cover shone green like emeralds. A landmass to the North was visible, and glittered white with snow. There was no sound until he had passed through the upper atmosphere, and the rush of wind greeted him deafeningly. He was already panicked, but he now reached a new height of fear as the ground rushed up to meet him.

He saw Rosthagaar below him with its vast city, and a flash of the village of Arrom that appeared desolate.

But all too quickly the golden temple came into view, atop its volcano. He instinctively covered his eyes when the temple’s tower was just feet from him. He expected a quick, grisly death, yet only a minor jolt met his senses.

He was confused momentarily, and then he opened his eyes. Everything blurred and he blinked away tears and a crust that had formed around the eyelids. He grimaced at a headache like no other he had experienced. It drummed away at the base of his skull, and slowly spread to his forehead.

‘Coinin,’ said a distant voice. ‘You’re awake.’

Coinin’s senses slowly returned, and he now recognised the voice of his brother, although everything appeared out of focus, and that included a shape on his right, which he took to be Marrok.

‘Of course I’m awake. I haven’t been gone that long.

‘What do you mean? You were unconscious for three weeks.’

‘You’re mistaken; I’ve been gone an hour at most.’

‘If only that were true, I wouldn’t have spent three weeks sitting tending to you while you had a nice little nap,’ Marrok snapped.

Coinin contemplated this and laid his head back down on his pillow. ‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

Time must work differently in Deaths realm. Mere moments there must pass as days here on Erath, Coinin thought.

‘I saw Mother and Father,’ Coinin announced.

‘You mean you dreamt about them?’

‘No, I mean I met them. I wasn’t sleeping, I went someplace else.’

‘What do you mean someplace else?’

Coinin recounted his story of the past hour, or three weeks, depending on whom you asked, and went on to describe the realm of Death, the meeting with their parents, and the warnings he had received.

All the while Marrok sat and listened impassively. Not once did he interrupt Coinin’s flow, until he had finished, at which point he turned aside from his brother and gave way to grief.

Coinin gave Marrok the freedom to mourn; he knew how deeply the deaths of their parents had upset him, and how he needed time to come to terms with that fact that Coinin, not he, had seen them. He was sure if Marrok had met them, that this would have gone a long way to fortifying him.

Marrok dried his eyes and turned back to Coinin, full of questions about their parents and his encounter with Death.

‘We’re in trouble, and we’ve yet one more enemy. Death.’ Marrok sighed and turned away.

‘We’re not in any more trouble than usual,’ Coinin quipped.

Marrok rounded on his brother angrily. ‘Oh, so you think this is funny, do you? You’ve angered a god, and now we are in grave danger.’

‘You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said, have you? Whether or not I did what Death asked of me, we were always going to be in danger.’

‘How so?’ Marrok glared.

‘I told you, if I put his name in the Scroll of Life, he will have the power to destroy the peoples of Er’ath entirely. Either way we are marked men. At least this way the danger is limited to you and me.’

‘I’m glad to see that you have made that decision for me,’ said Marrok testily.

‘You think I made the decision lightly?’

‘I just don’t know. What right do you have to make decisions about my life?’

‘I have no right, I know, but would the deaths of countless people be something your conscience would allow?’

Marrok turned away and lowered his head; his knuckles gripped the bed in frustration.

Coinin reached out to his brother and grasped his shoulder. ‘Forgive me, brother. If the truth be told, I very nearly sided with him.’

‘What stopped you?’ Marrok asked quietly. His head tilted towards Coinin almost imperceptibly.

‘Death took our parents. What kind of man would I be to allow Death to rip apart other families. I couldn’t live with that knowledge.’

‘People die all the time, families lose loved ones daily.’

‘Not on the magnitude Death was exploring.’

Marrok said nothing and the minutes passed in silence, until he whirled around and clapped his hands together.

‘Well, I guess there’s nothing for it. We’ll just have to be ready should he show his ugly face around these parts.’ Marrok grinned broadly.

Coinin was baffled. ‘Just a few minutes ago you were angry. What’s changed?’

‘You know I can’t miss an opportunity for a good fight. And the chance to send Death a clear message, that he better not mess with the Wulf brothers, is too good to miss.’

Coinin sat up and was glad to see his brother smile happily at the thought of sending Death a message. ‘I don’t want to break the mood, but it probably won’t be Death that pays us a visit, but more likely an assassin or two he’s hired to kill us.’

‘It’s all the same to me, brother. Let him send whomever he likes. I’ll happily show them the error of their ways.’

The curtain that surrounded the bed swished open and Curator Menin stood there with a smile on her face.

‘It’s about time you joined the land of the living. This calls for a celebration, and an excuse to open a bottle or two of Master Ignatius’s best wine.’ Menin chuckled.

‘There’s really no need,’ Coinin objected.

‘Coinin, you’ve had us all worried, and I think we all need a cause to celebrate now that you’re back with us.’

Matron Rod’lin sidled up to Menin and leant in close. ‘Excuse me, but there’ll be no festivities until I’ve thoroughly checked my patient.’

Curator Menin bowed before the matron and then turned and winked to Coinin. ‘I bow to your authority, of course, matron, but please have Coinin up and about quick smart. There are those eager to thank our heroes.’ She smiled and nodded to Marrok, who visibly swelled with pride.

Coinin spent the better part of the day subjected to prods and pokes by Doctor Zarth and his students, until he felt the urge to scream.

Marrok had excused himself to bathe and shave, and set about his task to remove three weeks of dirt and grime. He was surprised to find a new leather tunic laid across his bed upon finishing. He had to admit it, his had taken a good beating. He dried himself, and then dressed in his new garb, and immediately felt its quality. A true artisan had made this garment. The leather was thin, yet strong; perhaps lamb, since it flowed like water as he walked.

Several hours later the night had drawn in, and with it worshippers keen to join the celebrations arranged by Curator Menin. There were very many in attendance in the dining hall that buzzed with an air of excitement.

The hall had been decked top to bottom with lavish decorations that hung from the ceiling and beams. The adornments glittered red and gold, and cast pinpricks of light upon the guests below.

Aside from an enormous banquet that boasted every delight imaginable, Master Ignatius had set up shop in the middle of the room and busily poured bottle after bottle of sumptuous red wine for the revellers, and seemed to be very happy doing so.

By the time Coinin and Marrok had arrived at the festivities, the attendees were already quite merry.

Coinin stopped at the entrance to the hall to enjoy the dancing from afar; he did not dance, and was far too weak to partake.

So many witches and wizards spun and whirled to the rhythmic music played by a small band of musicians on the podium that the sight of them was hypnotic. Every now and then a witch or wizard paused for breath, took a sip of wine, and was immediately refreshed.

‘The wine is Ignatius’s special brew, guaranteed to give you a kick. Would you like some?’ Menin smiled, and offered each a cup of burgundy liquid that seemed to dance with light within the small cup.

‘Thank you,’ said Marrok, and took the cup and sipped its contents. A moment later, a smile spread across his face. ‘Good stuff.’

Caught by the beat of the music, Marrok sauntered off into the crowd and left Coinin and Menin alone.

‘You know you don’t have to go to all this trouble,’ said Coinin, with what he hoped was not an ungrateful tone.

‘It’s a double celebration, the defeat of the enemy, and the return of a conquering hero.’ Menin smiled. ‘Please, enjoy yourself.’

‘I don’t know if I can.’

Curator Menin looked at him with a raised eyebrow. ‘What is it?’

‘I think we need to talk.’

Menin nodded, took Coinin by the arm, and led him away.

Marrok, unaware of Coinin and Menin’s departure, was content to dance with a beautiful young woman by the name of Talina. He did not know if it was the wine or his own desire, but he knew somehow that someday he would marry this girl who gyrated so evocatively around him.

DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Seven.

January 14, 2018 Leave a comment

THE BLACK TOWER

The black and emerald creature beat its thunderous wings, sending shocks of air at its captives below.

Jericho sensed the arrival of the dragon was not a coincidence. He had no chance of escape. Even if he managed to release the dragon’s grip, the fall would kill him.

Although undignified, the ride was not uncomfortable; the huge claws provided a surprisingly soft enclosure. This creature, he knew, had guarded Eraywen, and undoubtedly belonged to the dark order of witches and wizards of whose existence he had just learnt.

They travelled southwest, according to the position of the sinking sun, until Rosthagaar lay far behind. He craned his neck and was just able to see the island Sanctuary disappear, and this filled him with a sense of dread. No good would come of this new adventure, he was sure.

The dragon journeyed through the night; the beat of its wings was hypnotic. Jericho dozed during the flight, unable to fully sleep due to the cold. He woke instantly as the animal changed elevation. He was forced to squint as the morning sun’s first rays peeked over the distant horizon. The endless ocean swept below him. In the distance, a small speck of land grew larger with every wing beat.

He was alert immediately, his heart rate elevated, ready to fight or take flight at a moment’s notice. Eraywen should have revived by now and it intrigued him that she had not.

‘Eraywen,’ he called. ‘Eraywen!’

She stirred, and moaned slightly. Her eyes blinked a few times, before she opened them fully. It took a few moments for her to focus and she looked down, and then up at the dragon. Her scream was deafeningly loud. The dragon craned its neck to look at her, snorted a hot waft of air, and then continued its journey.

‘We’re going to die!’ Eraywen screamed.

‘No, we are not!’ Jericho yelled. ‘Now calm down!’

Eraywen sobbed quietly to herself. ‘What happened?’

‘Do you not remember? You got us into this mess.’

‘I don’t know what you are talking about. The last thing I remember is–’ Eraywen paused and screwed up her eyes in concentration. ‘I remember seeing you off to battle, and then I woke up here. He’s going to eat us, isn’t he?’

‘No, Eraywen, he’s not going to eat us,’ said Jericho through gritted teeth.

‘I’m scared,’ Eraywen wailed.

‘I know,’ said Jericho more softly. ‘I am too.’

Jericho thought for a few moments. Something about her was wrong, but he could not put his finger on it immediately. It was only after a hundred or so of the rhythmic wing beats that it hit him.

‘Eraywen, where’s your talisman?’ he asked.

‘What talisman?’

‘The silver butterfly talisman you wore around your neck last night.’

‘I don’t possess such a thing,’ Eraywen said, giving Jericho an odd look.

Jericho puzzled over this new information. Was the talisman cursed, and had it controlled her actions? He had heard of such items before, and they took powerful magic to create. He hoped upon hope that this would be the reason for his wife’s treachery.

‘Eraywen, this is important. Do you remember ever holding the silver butterfly necklace? Perhaps someone handed it to you?

She thought long and hard, and it was minutes before she replied. ‘I think I do remember something. After we said goodbye this morning, I collided with a man who wore a hood over his face. He dropped a few items and I helped him pick these up. I’m not certain, but I do think I saw a flash of silver just before I woke up here.’

Jericho felt a huge sense of relief at this news. ‘That was no accident. I think you were cursed by that talisman, and that man did this to you on purpose.’

‘Cursed?’

‘I feel you were bewitched by this talisman to do that man’s bidding. The moment you touched it your thoughts and actions became that of someone else. Did you get a good look at this man?’

Eraywen had no time to reply as the dragon took a deep dive. She screamed as a small island rushed up to meet them, as did the top of a very tall tower.

The dragon reared and slowed. Its wings beat slower and reversed as it hovered over the ramparts. The creature then released its grip on the captives. Jericho and Eraywen dropped several feet to the hard stone floor, and immediately three hooded figures approached and held outstretched arms. They did not, however, offer assistance to the couple. They each brandished wands.

Jericho rose slowly and stiffly. He and Eraywen had been lucky not to have been injured in the fall. He turned and helped his wife to her feet, and then stepped defensively in front of her.

A cruel-faced man who wore a blue tunic and black robes stepped forward. His dark hair flicked about his face as a result of the winds circling the top of the tower. A scar that appeared to be a recent addition to his features ran the length of his face to his neck.

‘Welcome. I am Le’roth. Please do not attempt to use magic to escape,’ he said. ‘You will find that your journey will end very quickly in a watery grave. You are beyond the limit at which the Destinaté spell can transport you, and there are no boats on this island, before that thought enters your mind.’

‘Of that I have no doubt,’ Jericho replied. ‘Why have we been brought here?’

The captor prodded Jericho in the chest with his finger. ‘We will ask the questions. Follow me.’

Although the man was pleasant in speech, Jericho perceived a ruthless streak in him, and made a mental note to stay well clear. He quickly eyed the other guards, and held Eraywen’s hand. He escorted her down a trapdoor set into the floor without argument.

A cold stone spiral staircase led steeply downwards into the bowels of the tower.

The party passed numerous drab wooden doors, from which a cacophony of noises disturbed the mind. Indistinct screams emanated from a room halfway down the tower and set Eraywen on edge. She looked at her husband, terrified, and grasped him tightly. The general placed an arm around his wife, hoping to comfort her.

What little light drawn in through the slit windows diminished as they trod lower into the depths of the structure, the coldness in the air increasing. Now only torches lit the way at regular intervals with crazy shadows that bounced off the walls.

Everywhere Jericho noticed that symbols of a dragon were embedded into the stonework of doorframes and into the ironwork of fiery torches.

Every now and then, the escorts roughly poked their captives in the back with a wand to serve as a reminder that they were still under guard, and it took all of Jericho’s restraint not to react.

A short time later, the steps stopped and a passageway opened out before them. The arched roof oozed dampness and echoed their footsteps as they walked its length.

Jericho, ever observant, kept a mental note of their path, should the opportunity for escape arise. He pondered that they must be quite a distance under the seabed.

It was darker here still and the sounds of chains rattled and echoed. Screams of the unseen unnerved Eraywen and the general, their thoughts turning to what would become of them. The group approached a fork in the tunnel, and here several men sat on wooden crates in a pool of light. They appeared to be engrossed in a game that was a cross between chess and backgammon.

The gamers stiffened as the small group approached, and when Le’roth stepped into the light, the seated guards visibly relaxed.

‘Oh, it’s you,’ said a gruff voice. ‘I thought it was the master.’

Le’roth raised an eyebrow at the speaker. ‘Believe me, Nestis, if it was the master, you would be dead where you sit.’

Nestis rose sharply, as if to challenge Le’roth, and a fellow guard grabbed his arm and arrested his ascent.

‘You think I lie?’ Le’roth spat. ‘Our master does not suffer fools easily, and you are foolish if you think he does not know you do not guard your prisoners, and instead sit and play children’s games.’

‘From what I hear, Le’roth,’ Nestis sneered, ‘you too are fortunate to be alive, after your last failure. One of many, no doubt.’

Le’roth laughed. ‘I see you are as hilarious as ever, Nestis. However, as you can see, I do not have time for your games. Unlike you, I am on an errand for our master. Now, where would you like the prisoners kept?’

‘Well, let’s see who we have here.’ Nestis rose again and swaggered out of the light and into the gloom. He first grabbed Eraywen and then pulled her to him and reached around to grip her backside. She squealed and he laughed.

Jericho lost his composure and lunged for Nestis, but was arrested as a wand was raised to his face in the blink of an eye, barely an inch from his nose.

‘Who do we have here so eager to pick a fight with me?’ Nestis chortled. He caught hold of Jericho by the hair and dragged him into the light where his smile faltered. ‘You? You die, now!’

Nestis raised his wand once more and prepared to strike, but it was immediately blasted out of his hand and disappeared into the darkness. He rubbed his hand in pain.

‘Who dares–’

‘I dare.’ Le’roth stepped forward. ‘You will not harm my prisoner. That is my job, should it come to it.’

Nestis spat on the ground. ‘I will not kill your prisoner.’ He swung quickly to face Jericho and struck him in the face. ‘But there’s no saying I can’t rough him up a bit. That, general, was for the squadron of men you slaughtered at Windelrow.’

Jericho fell to his knees and rubbed his sore jaw. ‘The battle of Windelrow, yes, I remember it well. It’s funny how you escaped a certain death. Perhaps you were the one that ran tail between his legs, and left your men without a captain.’

‘Lies!’ Nestis thundered, and aimed a kick at Jericho’s face.

Le’roth slammed Nestis hard into the rock wall of the tunnel, a forearm resting heavily on his breastbone. ‘Calm yourself,’ Le’roth growled. ‘Now, where do I put the prisoners? Be warned, I will not ask again.’

Nestis avoided his gaze. ‘Third cell on the right.’ He pointed to his left down a dark intersection of the tunnel.

‘There now, that was not so difficult, was it?’ Le’roth patted Nestis on the cheek, and then gripped it tightly. ‘Next time, do not keep me waiting.’

Le’roth let him go and turned to his prisoners; he hauled Jericho to his feet and pushed him forward into the gloom, followed closely by Eraywen.

‘A fine lot of help you were.’ Nestis winced in pain as he returned and sat with his fellow guards at their makeshift games table.

‘We’re not picking any fights with him,’ a young guard piped up.

‘Cowards,’ Nestis hissed.

‘The way we hear it, you’re the coward,’ a gravelly voice chimed in.

Everyone burst into fits of laughter to Nestis’s chagrin. He cuffed the young guard around the head, and that made everyone laugh that much harder.

The morning that followed brought with it no relief from the cold or bitter dampness that Jericho and Eraywen had endured overnight in their cell. It was nothing more than a rock cave with a solid wooden door in one wall. A single torch had burnt low during the night, and a pile of rags on which to sleep stank of the hundreds of previous occupants.

The last tenant had busily engraved a monologue along one wall in a strange language neither Jericho nor Eraywen understood. Jericho looked dishevelled and had spent time checking the walls and door for a means of escape, to no avail. The rest of the night he had watched his wife sleep while he formulated plan after plan for escape, each of which he discarded. Every scenario failed because it meant he had to take his wife with him and she would slow him down. He could never bring himself to leave her behind, only to rescue her later. He needed a plan that would allow his wife safe passage alongside him. For now though, the ideal solution eluded him.

Chains and bolts rattled on the far side of the cell door. A peephole opened and then shut abruptly with a clang. The heavy wooden door creaked open on rusted iron hinges, and revealed Nestis standing alone with a wand in hand.

‘Good morning, I trust you slept well?’ Nestis sniggered. ‘No? Oh well, never mind. I am sure once my master is finished with you, you’ll welcome a long deep sleep.’

Jericho ignored Nestis’s taunts. Instead, he turned to Eraywen and shook her awake, and supported her as she stiffly got to her feet.

‘Nothing to say?’ Nestis asked. ‘You will have. Now, move it,’ he ordered.

Jericho linked arms with Eraywen and led her out of the cell at Nestis’s command, into an equally dank tunnel system.

‘Where are you taking us?’ Jericho demanded, aware of the wand pointed at him, and curious as to why Nestis was alone.

‘To see my master, of course.’

‘Who is he?’ Jericho asked, and half expected a blow to the head.

‘You know, you ask far too many questions. He is Lord and Master of all of this,’ said Nestis with a grand gesture.

‘He must be so proud to own such an endearing home,’ Jericho snorted.

Nestis looked affronted. ‘This is merely the dungeon, you fool. Now, shut up and move.’

As Nestis escorted them through the complex of tunnels, Jericho kept a close eye on security, and upon first inspection it appeared to be light. This was an advantage; however, he of all people knew that appearances were often deceptive.

They had, Jericho noted, followed a tunnel with a steady incline, and after a quick glance over his shoulder his suspicions were proved correct. Eraywen had become quite puffed; she was not as fit as her husband, and gratefully accepted help partway up the tunnel.

Their journey ended in a dead end and both Eraywen and Jericho turned to Nestis, confused.

‘Here we are,’ Nestis announced.

Jericho raised an eyebrow at him, and then looked at Eraywen and shrugged.

‘You doubt me?’

‘Well, the tunnel has ended,’ said Eraywen quietly from behind her husband.

‘Pretty lady, get ready for a surprise,’ said Nestis with glee. He shoved Jericho aside, and pushed Eraywen roughly towards the rock wall of the tunnel. However, before she hit, she vanished in a bright white flash.

‘A simple portal,’ said Nestis smugly and turned back to Jericho.

Jericho grabbed Nestis’s wand arm and twisted it behind his back. The man gave a howl of pain that was immediately silenced as Jericho brought his forearm around the man’s neck and squeezed tightly.

‘How do I get off this island?’ he hissed.

With a barely noticeable motion, Nestis shook his head.

‘Pity, I would have spared your life.’

Nestis struggled and then stiffened as Jericho wrenched his captive’s arm further up his back.

There was a crack as his shoulder socket dislocated and he gave a yell. Jericho aimed the captive’s wand at his head and uttered the death curse. Nestis collapsed. Jericho allowed the man to fall to the ground and then bent and retrieved the wand from the dead man’s hand.

‘Now who is the fool?’ Jericho grunted, and stepped into the portal stream, just inches from the wall.

He felt as if the air had been sucked out of his lungs, and a giant weight threatened to crush his skull for the few moments that he was in the portal. This was poor magic, apprentice level at best. Transportation in this manner should have felt as if his whole body was tingling with warmth.

It was a relief to reappear at the other side of the portal, and he collapsed on the floor.

Eraywen rushed to his side and helped her husband stand. ‘Where’s that awful man?’

‘Dead,’ Jericho replied without remorse. ‘Which is what will happen to us if we are caught here without a guard.’

‘What do we do?’ Eraywen cried.

‘Get out of here without being seen. That’s the easy part, though I don’t suppose we will be able to use magic to port home.’ Jericho checked about him for danger.

‘They must get off the island somehow, these people.’

‘True, and I guess we’ll find out how soon enough.’ Jericho smiled reassuringly. ‘Let’s move before they discover Nestis’s body. Stay behind me, and keep quiet. If I say run, you run, okay?’

‘Yes, okay.’ Eraywen nodded.

Jericho crept forward with Eraywen so close behind that he could feel her hot breath on his neck.

The other side of the portal had brought them to a world far removed from the dark, damp dungeon. They were still in a tunnel, but this one was exposed to the outside world, and this section ended with a jagged hole in its roof. At some stage, a cave-in had occurred, and a breeze from the sea wafted towards them, salty and fresh. A shaft of sunlight cast a beam through the hole in the tunnel wall, and illuminated what appeared to be a pile of rags thrown against the rock wall.

Jericho and Eraywen moved forward carefully, and after a few steps, Jericho froze. He turned to his wife and raised a finger to his lips.

He crept forward again, and brandished his newly acquired wand. He did not need it to perform magic, he could use unspoken magic should he desire, but it served as a deterrent.

Jericho stepped up to the pile of rags and knelt quietly. He prodded at them with the wand.

‘Just another five minutes,’ a sleepy voice complained from the pile.

‘If I were you I would get up, and be pretty quick about it too,’ said Jericho loudly, as if he had ordered one of his troops.

The rags moved as swift as lightning. So did Jericho. His hand shot out to grab the sleeper by the throat and Jericho shoved him against the rock wall.

‘Oh my, you’re a prisoner,’ croaked the man, his eyes wide in terror.

‘Then you know what I am capable of. One false move,’ Jericho squeezed the man’s throat harder, ‘and it will be your last.’

Jericho wrinkled his nose in disgust as a waft of urine invaded his senses. He looked down at the poorly dressed man. He was shorter than average, wiry and bald, wearing a ripped and charred cloak that appeared to be made of sackcloth. His skin was as rough as leather and looked scorched in places, especially the arms.

Jericho’s sense of smell had worked well. A pool of urine had begun to puddle at the man’s sandals. He released his grip slightly and spoke more softly. ‘Who are you?’

‘I’m a dragon wrangler. I don’t do nothing other than look after dragons, honest.’

Jericho released his grip on the man, but did not lower the wand. ‘What is your name, dragon wrangler?’

‘Silentus Madook.’ His eyes darted here and there and looked for escape.

Did this little man really handle dragons? If so, Jericho knew better than to underestimate him.

‘They don’t need much handling really. I feed them six times a day, and muck them out every morning,’ Silentus offered with a weak smile. He wiped his brow, which had begun to bead with sweat.

‘The wizards, why do they need dragons, what do they use them for?’

‘Well, they travel from here to the mainland mostly, and back again, like.’

‘How come you are working for these people?’ Jericho demanded, and searched for a lie in the man’s eyes.

‘Believe me, it isn’t by choice. I run up a bit of a gambling debt, like,’ Silentus began. ‘As it turns out, I couldn’t pay. So anyway, this chap, he comes to me, he does, and says he can write off my debt, but I have to work for him, on account as how I’m good with horses, you see.’

‘Go on,’ Jericho said.

‘Well, that’s it, I thought I was looking after horses, instead it turns out it’s dragons. You know, I’ve been here ten years. You would have thought I’d have paid off my debt by now.’

Jericho grunted, and then signalled Eraywen to join them.

‘I’d do anything to go home, I would. God knows what the wife will say,’ Silentus mused.

‘Indeed. Perhaps I can help you get home.’ An idea had formed in Jericho’s mind. ‘You get us on a transport out of here, and I will ensure you and your family are kept safe until all this blows over.’

‘I’m not sure about that. These people are ruthless murdering scum.’ Silentus shook his head worriedly.

‘These people are amateur at best. I, on the other hand, am a general of a grand army.’

‘How come you got caught then?’

‘That, my friend, is thanks to one of your bloody great big dragons.’

‘Ah!’ said Silentus sheepishly.

‘Ah is right. Now, will you help us?’

Silentus thought hard. ‘If only to see the back of you, then yes.’

‘Fine, then I shall honour our agreement once we are off this island,’ said Jericho, and offered Silentus a hand in friendship.

Silentus took the hand and shook it, sealing the deal.

‘There is one question I have. Are these dragons used in combat? I plan to escape and don’t particularly fancy coming up against one of them; they are fearsome creatures. I would like to know how to defeat one if I cannot ride one out of here, and you seem to be best placed to advise me on that.’

Silentus grimaced. ‘It’s possible they use them for defence, I can’t say I’ve seen that. But I tell you, it isn’t an easy thing to kill a dragon, near impossible if the stories are to be believed. They can’t be trained, but they are susceptible to certain types of magic that can take away their free will for a while, helpful if you want to use them as transport. Take away its mind and ability to protect itself and then strike at the heart, and it will die, hopefully, if you do it right.’

Jericho looked hopeful. ‘We will talk later on this. Now lead on, friend, we don’t have all day.’

They stepped into the bright sunlight and immediately squinted, blinded by the sun’s rays that cut through a light mist that enveloped the island. It was a few moments before their eyes adjusted, and their new surroundings came into focus. An enormous solitary tower made from a cold, dark stone, rose hundreds of feet into the air. Low cloud skirted its bulk high up, and at the base of the tower, a building made from the same material gathered moss. It had a pitched roof made from straw, and from this angle, no doors or windows could be seen.

‘The building is really two,’ said Silentus. ‘To the left is the barracks and the right holds a meeting hall.’

‘Who meets there?’ Eraywen asked.

‘I don’t rightly know, they keep us away when there’s a meeting going on, but I do hear the guards talking, and they say a council of oath breakers meet here twice a week. Today is one of those days, and I was sent away as usual. I took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep.’

Jericho thought long and hard. Warlocks – for that was what Silentus had meant, liars and dark wizards by any other name – meeting here, but why? This might be his one chance to find out. ‘I want to take a closer look at those attending the meeting. Where is the best place?’

‘It would be suicide to try to get close to the building during a meeting,’ Silentus objected. ‘But, if you are mad enough to try it, I do have a suggestion. The barracks are usually empty during the gathering as the guards are busy protecting the wizards.’

‘How does that help us?’

‘The wall between the two buildings is quite thin in the roof space. If you can get into the barracks unseen, you should be able to crawl through the roof space into the meeting hall.’

‘You seem very knowledgeable about this?’ Jericho eyed Silentus suspiciously.

‘Well, I should.’ Silentus shrugged. ‘I went poking about in the meeting room some time ago. I heard someone coming and panicked. I hid in the only place I could; the roof.’

‘How did you get out?’

‘Well, I couldn’t leave the way I came in, so I removed a few loose stones from the wall and slipped through. Thankfully no one was around.’

‘Well, okay, we need a plan,’ Jericho began. ‘Eraywen, I think you should stay out of sight, while Silentus checks to see if the barracks are clear. If they are, he signals me, and I will slip in undetected.’

Eraywen stepped up to Jericho, nose-to-nose, and scowled at him. ‘Why are you doing this? We need to escape. We should have been in their master’s presence minutes ago. By now they will be missing us.’

‘I know you are frightened, my sweet. But these troll droppings nearly destroyed our spiritual home, and I mean to find out who they are so that we can put a stop to their crimes. I will be gone mere moments.’

‘Why you?’ Eraywen whined. ‘Why not someone else?’

‘This may be the only chance we get to do this. There is no one else here who can.’

‘We should be making all haste to get off this island. It’s dangerous enough,’ Eraywen pleaded.

‘Enough!’ said Jericho gruffly. ‘The decision is made.’

‘I am not one of your soldiers to command,’ Eraywen half whispered, her eyes lowered.

‘No, you are my wife, but you are no tactician and fail to see the bigger picture. I do this to protect you. Now, please, let me do what I do best.’

‘Have you quite finished?’ Silentus asked. ‘Only the meeting is due to begin, if I’ve read the sun correctly.’

‘Oh, you’ve read it correctly, for a traitor.’

Silentus wheeled around at the sound of the new voice, and immediately a fist struck him in the stomach. He doubled up in pain, and then a second punch connected with his jaw. He fell onto his back, and was knocked out cold as his head hit the ground hard.

Jericho raised his wand in defence, but knew before he looked that he would be outmanoeuvred.

‘Now that I have your attention, I suggest you drop your wand, general. Despite what you did to Nestis, thank you, by the way, the master still wishes to see you.’ Le’roth smirked. He flicked his wand up and down as an indication that Jericho should drop his.

Jericho fleetingly contemplated a duel with Le’roth, but he knew the man would not be alone, and his instincts proved to be correct when several wizards appeared out of thin air, accompanied by loud cracks.

He was outnumbered, and unsure if he was fast enough to take out all of them before they struck back. There was the additional fear that he would hit his wife if he used a destruction spell. What about Eraywen? She was now in the greatest danger. He had to act, but how?

‘Caught twice in as many days, general. We are losing our touch.’ Le’roth chuckled to himself and circled Jericho. ‘Now, if you do not mind, follow me to the master. He is waiting.’

‘If I refuse?’

Le’roth looked at him, amused. This man dared to test him. ‘Then you pay the price.’ He raised his wand and a jet of red light erupted from its tip.

It struck Eraywen squarely in the chest. Her face was one of shock as the life left her eyes. Jericho launched himself forward as she fell to her knees and caught her in mid-air. He knew instantly that she was dead as she lay in his arms.

‘Perhaps now you will do as you are asked,’ said Le’roth, his tone and expression unmoved.

Jericho, with a solitary tear that ran down his nose, gently kissed Eraywen on her forehead, and then with his fingers he closed her eyes to the world for the last time.

He picked up his wife’s lifeless body in his strong arms and slowly made his way to the barracks several yards away. He was aware, if only distantly, that Le’roth shouted commands and orders to him, but he paid no heed.

Le’roth’s companions stepped aside and permitted him to pass, unwilling to interfere in the man’s grief.

He reached the doorway, and kicked the wooden door open with a crunch, and then located the nearest cot. There he gently laid Eraywen onto it, and knelt beside her, faintly aware of a presence behind him.

‘I don’t care what happens to me,’ said Jericho flatly. ‘But see to it that she is buried with dignity.’

‘It will be done as you ask,’ said a female voice. ‘However, I must bind you now.’

He was vaguely aware that his hands had been tied with leather strips, and then he was assisted to his feet.

Jericho, dazed with grief, allowed himself to be manoeuvred to the meeting hall that neighboured the barracks.

The decoration of the hall was lost on Jericho; his eyes focused on his feet. He had lost countless men in battle, but no amount of training or battle experience had prepared him for this. He blamed himself. If only he had not delayed.

The spacious meeting room held a single large wooden table, an ellipse of highly polished oak. There was a cut-out that led to a central circle, that permitted a speaker to stand within and address those sitting at the table. The circumference held thirteen highly decorated chairs, each with the carved representation of a dragon. The walls were draped in fine red and gold standards emblazoned with the symbol of the dragon, thirteen in all. Each was different, one for each of the attendees. The central standard was by far the largest and sported the shape of a giant black dragon ready to pounce. This matched the central chair, larger than the rest.

In this chair sat a hooded figure. A long beard of grey snaked its way to the floor. A gnarled hand that wore several bejewelled rings grasped the top of a wooden staff, which was inlaid with a band of gold that wound its way down the shaft and ended in a golden dragon claw.

Jericho was forced to kneel several feet from the figure in the chair.

Only then did the figure look up. ‘Dareth Jericho. How you have aged,’ he said, and dropped his hood. Long grey hair tumbled to his shoulders and a heavily scarred face looked intently at him. Piercing green eyes held his gaze. Jericho had the sudden compulsion to look away, but maintained his stare.

The grey-haired man raised a bony finger and beckoned. ‘Come closer so I may see you better,’ he rasped.

Jericho struggled to his feet, and moved forward a few steps before he was again forced to kneel by his captor.

‘You have me at a disadvantage, Sir,’ Jericho began. ‘Who are you?’

‘Ever the gentleman, Dareth. All in good time. I was hoping to meet your lovely wife again. Where is she?’

The young woman who guarded Jericho stepped forward and cleared her throat. She looked nervously at her master. ‘I am sorry. She is dead.’

The master rose sharply. ‘Dead!’ he roared. ‘What do you mean dead? How did she die?’

Jericho’s captor dropped her eyes as the wizard rushed forward and stood toe-to-toe with her.

‘I said, how did she die?’

Le’roth stepped into the intimate gathering. ‘I killed her, my Lord.’

The dark wizard swung to face him and reared to his full height. His eyes blazed red with fury.

‘Fool! Now the general will never defect, and no magic can turn him to our cause,’ he screamed.

Le’roth backed away and trembled with fear. The master raised a wrinkled grey hand, and cast a death curse at Le’roth. The latter gasped as a red energy ball hit him full force in the chest. He flew across the room and skidded to a stop against the meeting room wall. His focus fixed and his eyes dilated. His body gave a final sigh as the breath left him for the final time.

Jericho inwardly rejoiced at the death of the man who had taken the life of his beloved. So he had been correct, these people had wanted him to turn spy against his people.

‘That is the price of failure,’ said the cloaked figure to no one in particular. ‘Something I should have done to him long ago.’

Nobody said a word, too afraid of their master’s anger and of his next move. It was not long before he made it.

‘I suppose you think I am going to kill you too, Dareth, now that my plan has failed. Well, do not worry, you are safe, for now.’ The wizard hoisted Jericho to his feet and put an arm around his shoulders. He led him outside into the cool sea breeze. ‘Dareth, I am truly sorry for the loss of your wife. It is regrettable.’

‘Regrettable?’ Jericho snarled.

‘Indeed, I had never intended for my friend to be hurt in this way.’ A momentary flicker of remorse passed the man’s eyes.

‘We are not friends,’ Jericho sneered.

‘I take it, then, that my appearance prevents you from recognising me?’

‘Am I supposed to know you?’

‘Dareth, you and I were friends for many years, till the day you killed me.’

The general shot him a questioning look, and then the truth became clear. He was looking into the heavily scarred face of his closest and most beloved friend, Lordich Secracar.

Lordich had conspired with Draken to overthrow the Brotherhood of the Wulf and establish his own rule in the seat of power. After a fierce battle between the Brotherhood and Lordich’s armies, Major Jericho, his rank at the time, had single-handedly captured Lordich alive. Draken had escaped, but was found some time later, hiding in a concealed chamber built into a well in the grounds of his home. He claimed that Lordich had controlled his thoughts and actions with a mind-altering herb concoction.

Investigations into Draken’s claim could not conclusively disprove his testimony, but he was banished from the temple by Curator Menin. His great marble statue in the temple grounds was defaced, alongside Lordich’s own. They remained to this day as a reminder to those who might choose the wrong path.

His peers, however, found Lordich guilty and sentenced him to death for sedition. He appealed the decision, but Archmage Orodor upheld the verdict and Major Jericho was given the order to execute his friend at dawn the next day. He had pleaded with Orodor that he be spared the grim task, but Orodor would not hear of it, and so the order stood.

The hour arrived for the execution to take place, and Lordich was led out of the temple dungeon in chains and under heavy guard by his former friends.

Brethren lined the paved walkway from the temple to witness the betrayer being led away. Some booed and jeered him as he went, yet he steadfastly ignored them, proud to the last.

An execution in this manner had not occurred for one thousand five hundred years, so far back there was only one reference to the deed in the temple archive. To kill a dark wizard was not an easy task; many had lost their lives trying. It was determined the only true way to kill such a foe was to cast him into a fiery volcano, and thereby obliterate all traces of the condemned. The timing was critical, as a dark wizard possessed powerful magic, as the tale of the wizard Rindoch reminded them.

The dark warlock Rindoch had escaped his fiery death by summoning a dragon to his side moments before he hit the volcanic magma. He was snatched out of thin air and whisked away to safety under the very noses of his guard.

The people of the village suffered at his hands for many years after that. Therefore, no chances had been taken with Lordich. He would be bound hand and foot and locked inside a heavy iron cage, too great for a dragon to lift easily. The cage would be tethered with rope to prevent it being taken. As a final measure, an anti-porting spell was cast over the cage, preventing any chance of escape.

Lordich calmly allowed himself to be bound and assisted into the cage that would ferry him to his death. Had he planned an escape? Jericho had instructed his men to be extra vigilant.

Horses heaved the cart laden with the cage and carried it to a clearing in the woods to the north of the Sanctuary. Here the order had constructed a platform above a pit that led to a magma lake below. Sanctuary, under Rindor’s protection, was once the site of an active volcano; now the lake bubbled away harmlessly.

The cage was unceremoniously dragged onto the platform by a dozen tethered horses, which strained under the weight. It was raised by pulleys over the pit, where it dangled precariously.

Major Jericho, dressed in a black cape and hood, clambered up the steps to the platform. He did not look directly at the prisoner; instead he directed his attention to the crowd that had gathered to witness the event. Ghouls, he thought as he raised a hand for silence. He took a moment to steel himself.

‘Brothers and Sisters, we meet today in the worst of circumstances. However, what we do today will serve as a message to those who oppose truth and justice.’ He walked the length of the platform, a frown creasing his brow. ‘Do not be saddened that we lose a friend; instead rejoice that we rid the world of one more corrupt and evil individual.’

Jericho allowed a moment for his words to sink in, and winced as a cheer resounded from the growing crowd.

‘Lordich, the traitor and conjurer of dark magic, has, before his peers, been condemned as an oath breaker and is sentenced to death. I ask you now, Lordich, do you have any final words before sentence is carried out?’

Lordich looked up and out to the crowd. ‘You think you are guided by truth and justice. I say you are ruled by prejudice and fear. Beware; others will come to challenge your authority. Before you murder me, I have a final word for Dareth. Major, if you please.’

Jericho visibly sagged; he had hoped that this would have been over quickly, and without the need to interact with Lordich. He turned and moved closer to the cage that swung slightly in a light breeze.

‘I do not blame you, and I hope to see you again someday soon, my friend,’ Lordich whispered.

‘In another life, perhaps?’ Jericho asked.

‘Something like that.’ Lordich winked. ‘Now, quickly, perform the deed. I tire.’

Jericho nodded and picked up an axe that was propped against the platform. With a roar he swung the axe. The rope cleaved and the cage dropped silently into the chasm, save for the rasp of the guard ropes as they followed it into the fiery pit. There were sharp intakes of breath, and a few sobs were heard from the crowd.

The major stepped over to the edge of the pit and checked that the cage had fallen. Convinced, he cast aside the axe and heaved closed a heavy trapdoor that covered the pit when not in use.

He fought back his emotions and again turned to the crowd. ‘Brothers and Sisters, the sentence has been carried out in accordance with our laws.’

He hurried down the steps and walked out of sight into the woods that surrounded the clearing. He walked for a few minutes, stumbling now and then in the early morning light that barely penetrated the canopy.

He reached an enormous oak tree that towered into the sky and slumped against it. There he sobbed unashamedly. The tears clouded his vision.

Above him, carved into the bark of the tree, were the names Lordich, Jericho, Draken and Perindar. They had joined the Brotherhood as young men and had over the years formed a lasting bond. Draken had been banished, Perindar had been killed in battle some months ago, and now Jericho’s closest friend had been executed by his own hand.

Several minutes later, he dried his tear-stained face and took out his knife, which he used to gouge the names of the traitors out of the bark, each slice like a dagger to the heart.

Back on the island, General Jericho looked into the face of a man he thought long dead and felt weak at the knees. In the space of thirty minutes, he had lost his wife and regained an old friend.

‘How can this be?’ Jericho spluttered. ‘I watched you fall myself.’

‘You wizards of light still cannot embrace the idea of the dark. Dark magic is not something to be feared, it should be embraced. I accept both dark and light and this makes me powerful beyond imagining.’

Jericho sniggered. ‘All that power and you allowed yourself to be caught.’

‘I was merely a novice then. I have had many years to master the two disciplines.’

‘So what? You want me to spy for you? That, my friend, will never happen.’

‘Oh, I know that.’ Lordich smiled regretfully. ‘I might have had a chance to turn you but for the fool Le’roth. Grief has a nasty habit of getting in the way of magic. It renders any attempt to influence your mind utterly futile.’

‘What a pity.’

‘So if I am not going to kill you, that leaves me with but one option, to hold you on the island indefinitely, or until I destroy your precious Brotherhood, at which point I may release you.’

‘So that’s your plan? Destroy the Brotherhood and exert your influence over the balance between religion and magic that we have fought so hard to maintain for thousands of years.’

‘Exactly. Rostha may believe it holds the power, but you and I know who truly rules the masses,’ said Lordich. ‘It is about time for a change to the way of things, for the peoples to embrace a new religion, one that has both light and dark.’

Jericho sighed and shook his head. ‘Poor deluded fool.’

‘It is not I who is deluded; can you not see a change has been in the winds for some time? You mock me, and yet I spare you.’

‘What is left for me in this world that I should be spared?’

‘I have not killed you because I wish you to see the birth of my new world. I stand by what I said the day you cast me into the pit. I do not blame you.’

‘Well, that’s good of you.’

‘Do not be like that, Dareth. I do not expect us to be friends, but I at least hoped we could be civil. I even hoped that you would join me in my conquest.’

‘What makes you think I would ever join you? I wasn’t fit to include in your plans so many years ago, was I?’

‘Would you have joined me?’

‘No. Not then, and not now.’

‘Then out of respect for our former friendship, enjoy your new home,’ said Lordich with regret.

Jericho remained silent as he surveyed his new prison. He had to escape and warn his brethren.

Lordich clicked his fingers at his closest aide, who scuttled to his side and received a whispered instruction. The aide gave a low bow, and approached Jericho, who was immediately on guard, but relaxed as he felt his bonds released. He rubbed his wrists and winced at the pins and needles that followed.

‘Dareth?’ Lordich began. ‘There is nowhere to run. Do not try to escape. I would hate to clap you in irons and confine you to a cell.’

‘I’m sure,’ Jericho muttered.

‘Your freedom comes at a price. You will be escorted at all times by two guards. You will eat, sleep, and toilet in their company.’

‘Am I supposed to be grateful?’

Lordich laughed. ‘Not at all. Well, maybe a little.’

‘There is one thing.’

‘Yes?’ Lordich asked with a raised brow.

‘How did you escape the pit?’

‘I guess I owe you an explanation.’ Lordich looked at the crescent-shaped visage of Er’ath’s sister planet Rol’as, highlighted in the morning sky. ‘I made a pact with Death.’

‘What do you mean death? You mean the Death?’

‘Yes. Despite his reputation, he is actually quite pleasant. We made a deal to ensure my continued existence.’

‘What did you trade?’

Lordich cocked his head and studied Jericho. ‘Four hundred thousand, two hundred and thirty-eight lives for my own.’

Jericho looked horrified. ‘No!’

‘The process began many years ago, and that number has grown, but no matter, they will all perish. Burning in a lake of molten rock is not a pleasant experience, yet, true to his word, Death rescued me, and I promised him the deaths of every member of the Brotherhood of the Wulf, bar one. You.’

‘No, you mustn’t, you can’t. They are innocent,’ Jericho cried.

‘I can, and I shall.’ Lordich nodded to the general’s guard. ‘Take him away.’

Rough hands gripped Jericho. He struggled and raged as they marched him away.

Jericho wrenched himself from his captor’s grasp. ‘Mark my words, Lordich, you will pay for this with your life.’

A club struck him on the back of his neck, and he sank to his knees semi-conscious. Supported by his guard, and subdued by the blow, he was dragged through the long grasses.

Lordich closed his eyes, and then shook his head. ‘I already did.’

DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Six.

A BIGGER PROBLEM

Coinin had rested for thirty minutes after his vicious battle with the now-dead giant. He had asked for water, and to his surprise his speech had significantly improved. This unsettled him. If he felt thirsty, and his speech had improved, had he entered a dangerous phase of his occupation of the giant’s mind, with the link in danger of permanency? He thought he had best consult with Curator Menin for advice.

A horse and cart arrived with a dozen pails of water, which he greedily consumed. Satiated, he looked around for Menin and spotted her in the distance in talks with her captains, whose men fought the last of the goblin horde.

He rose from his seated position and knocked over the water cart. The panic-stricken horse whinnied in terror, and its legs flailed in a vain attempt to right itself under the weight of the wooden cart.

Coinin bent over and used his giant frame to right the animal and its load. Immediately the horse bolted, its eyes wide in fear. Its handler cursed Coinin and ran after the animal.

Coinin laughed heartily at the fleeing horse and owner.

‘I’m glad to see one of us is enjoying himself,’ Marrok shouted up to Coinin. ‘May I remind you that there is still a giant to dispose of?’

‘May I remind you, brother, that there are two?’

‘Where?’ Marrok looked about him, confused.

‘Great in battle, but as thick as cow dung,’ Coinin said.

‘I heard that!’ Marrok swore. ‘Do you have any idea how you will kill the giant?’

‘I have no idea; I thought you were the great strategist, brother.’

‘I think I’ll leave the decision to Menin.’ Marrok shrugged off his brother’s rudeness.

‘Well, good, because that’s where I head, and your ideas are always useless anyway. Are you able to keep up? Do you want a lift?’

‘I’m fine, thank you,’ Marrok replied a little breathlessly.

‘I’m just saying, you know, if you find it difficult to keep up with your little legs–’

‘Enough of this!’ Marrok roared. ‘What is wrong with you?’

‘I don’t know. I’m not quite feeling myself,’ Coinin replied worriedly.

‘Come on, I’m sure Curator Menin can help.’

‘I hope so, I don’t like the way my head hurts. I feel like I want to rip and tear everything apart.’

‘Just don’t punch me, okay?’ Marrok said, and backed off slightly. He was worried; this was unlike Coinin. What was happening inside the giant’s mind?

‘I won’t, I promise. Look, there’s Menin now.’ Coinin pointed towards the Curator a dozen feet away.

They joined Menin, who was seated on her horse, offering direction to her troops.

‘Curator?’

‘How goes it, Coinin? Are you ready to slay the giant?’ Menin’s brow rose expectantly.

‘I would if I knew how. I don’t think I’m strong enough to break its neck, and even if I did, that would still leave this one.’ Coinin indicated his giant body.

‘I do have an idea how we can kill both at one time, but we will have only one shot at it.’

‘Before we get to that, I need to talk to you about my connection with this giant’s mind. I am feeling things I don’t think I should, such as anger and thirst.’

‘Yes, your speech has also improved.’

‘I’m frightened the connection will become permanent.’

‘That certainly is a concern, and I am sorry to say, a risk you took freely. This was, after all, your idea,’ said Menin. ‘However, I do not think you need to worry. Your brain is far superior to his, which I believe means that you can never truly remain a permanent resident. I am confident you will be forced out sooner or later. Archmage Orodor is the only real expert in these matters, he would know the risks far better than I.’

‘Would you ask him if it is safe to continue?’ Coinin asked hopefully.

‘I would if I could. The Archmage is not within the Sanctuary’s boundaries and cannot be contacted readily.’ Menin’s tone was apologetic. ‘I will, however, send my aide to the library to research it for you.’

‘Thank you, Laliala.’

‘Don’t worry. If my plan works, you will be out of there very soon, and before my aide returns.’

Coinin brightened slightly at this. ‘Okay, what’s the plan?’ he asked.

‘To the west of the caves where you led the giants is a wood. In this wood is a crevice, and at the bottom is a magma lake. The land we stand on once used to be an active volcano,’ said Menin, eliciting an awed look from Marrok, and something akin to a grimace from Coinin. ‘My theory is, if you can get the giant to the pit, you and he can take a quick trip to oblivion.’

‘If all goes to plan, I should pop back into my own body when the connection breaks,’ said Coinin cheerfully. ‘It’s just as well; I’m tired of this body.’

‘You and I both. The smell is something else.’ Marrok winked, and wafted a hand in front of his wrinkled nose.

‘That just leaves my troops to finish off the goblins inside the cave.’ Menin smiled.

‘Easier said than done,’ Marrok added. ‘How on earth do we get the giant to your pit?’

Menin paused, stumped for an answer for the first time in a long time. She paced back and forth, pulling at her bottom lip; her face was a picture of concentration.

‘Aha! Yes, of course.’ Menin beamed. ‘What is the one thing that drives a giant?’

Coinin and Marrok looked at each other and then shrugged at her.

‘Food! Giants love nothing more than food. If you can convince the giant at the cave there is a feast waiting at the pit for him, I am certain that he will follow you.’

‘What makes you think he’ll be hungry?’ Coinin asked.

‘He’s been out here all day without food. Trust me, he’s hungry.’

‘Why wouldn’t he just eat a dead goblin? There’s thousands just lying around.’

‘That is a fair question, however, goblins are the most foul-tasting species on this planet, and even a giant would not venture so far as to eat one. They are like poison, and boils would erupt all over his flesh if he tried to eat theirs.’ Menin turned her nose up at the thought. ‘I have even had to cover my horse in goblin dung, to prevent the giant getting wind of it and coming looking for a meal.’

‘So that’s what that smell is,’ Marrok laughed, and then cringed at Menin’s filthy look.

‘Don’t you think he’ll be suspicious when we turn up and there’s no food, just a great big hole in the ground?’ Coinin probed.

‘There will be food, my dear, you just leave that to me,’ Menin reassured, a twinkle in her eye. ‘Now, if you are ready, we don’t have much time. The giant will wonder where his friend has got to, I’m sure.’

‘Is there any word about the wizard on the cliff?’

‘No, nothing. I was about to send a runner to bring back news. Perhaps you could assist me in this task, Marrok?’

‘It would be an honour,’ Marrok nodded. ‘Coinin, please be careful, I’m not going to be there if things go wrong.’

Coinin wanted to tell him that he was able to look after himself but thought better of it; he had already caused enough tension between them today. ‘I’ll try,’ he said, and then turned to Menin. ‘Curator, I’m ready.’

‘Good. If you would follow me, I will show you to the clearing.’ Menin turned to her guard. ‘Zaruun, ride with me, I have a task for you.’

The ground shook slightly as Coinin followed Menin through the now quiet battlefield. Thousands of bodies of dead goblins slowly decayed, giving off a terrible stench. They were feasted upon by carrion crows, and minutes later the selfsame crows died; such was the way after eating goblin flesh.

‘See, I told you.’ Menin nodded to the crows. ‘Bad for you, is goblin flesh.’

Coinin thought anyone who ate one must be deranged anyway. The smell alone was enough to turn the stomach.

Soldiers roamed the field, checking each corpse. Any alive they quickly dispatched.

‘Why do you kill those goblins? Surely they are dying already?’ Coinin asked, a little sickened.

‘We do not kill needlessly, Coinin. Our aim is always to preserve life. However, we put these poor creatures out of their pain and suffering. Would you want to die a lingering death, or have a swift end?’

‘I understand,’ said Coinin, and said nothing more.

As they journeyed, Menin talked to Zaruun in hushed tones for several minutes.

‘It will be done as you ask.’ Zaruun gave a nod.

‘How long will you need?’

‘Thirty minutes at least.’

‘Then set to it,’ Menin ordered.

Zaruun saluted in return and reined his horse in the direction of the temple. He was heard calling people to his aid as he cantered away. The horse’s hooves thumped on the hard earth and the sound lessened as he gained distance.

Menin turned to Coinin. ‘You were fortunate to have survived the last attack by a giant. I am worried that you are not in full control or strong enough yet to take on another. You will need to be careful, and get out of there at the first sign of trouble.’

‘Wouldn’t that save you the job of killing me?’

‘Yes, but who will kill the other?’

‘I thought your soldiers could do it.’

‘That would not be my first choice, plus my troops are stretched thin. A column still battles goblins to the west.’ Her voice faltered for a moment. ‘I have lost many good men today and I just don’t have the resources to take on a fully grown adult giant. Do you see now why I need you?’

Coinin had not noticed it before, but now the strain of battle showed on Menin’s face. She no longer held herself erect, and she looked tired.

‘Curator?’ Coinin asked tentatively. ‘Are you okay, I mean are you feeling well?’

Menin reined her white horse to a stop, and gave him a weak smile. ‘I am not getting any younger, it’s true, and I will not hide the fact that this battle has tired me greatly. There is no point, if even you can spot my tiredness so readily.’

‘Can you not take a rest and let someone else take over for a while?’ Coinin asked, curious why she had opened up to him.

‘The only person I would trust to do that right now is General Jericho, but he is otherwise engaged,’ Menin replied. ‘However, even if I could let him take over, the rules of office state that it is the Curator’s responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Sanctuary at all costs.’

‘Perhaps someone needs to change the rules.’

Menin dropped her head and sighed. ‘I had hoped to discuss this in better surroundings.’ She took a reflective moment to observe the battlefield in the distance. ‘As it is, needs must. I brought you to this place to test your worthiness to assume the Office of Curator. The prophecy speaks of you bringing order to chaos, and how better than as Curator?’

Coinin looked at her incredulously. Had he heard her correctly?

‘My time in this role is almost at an end, and I agree, a few changes need to be made. I think this is a task for a younger person to accomplish.’

Coinin remained silent; even his giant face said it all. How could he be considered for a position of such great responsibility? He was a skinny seventeen-year-old boy who amounted to nothing. Wasn’t he?

‘I see you are unconvinced. My guess is you doubt your worthiness. Could a simple fisherman’s son step up to the mark and be counted when it mattered?’

Coinin was shocked. Had she read his mind?

‘I helped my father grind wheat for flour to make bread. That was before I was invited to the temple, of course. Would it surprise you to know that I was the daughter of a mill owner?’ Menin chuckled.

Coinin nodded, caught off guard by her revelation.

‘You do not need a position of power or status to be a great man, Coinin. Just a willingness to accept your destiny with humility.’

‘I’ve been told that before, that I have a destiny. I have a hard time believing it,’ said Coinin, uncomfortable at the suggestion.

‘I understand why you say this, I felt the same way at your age. Let’s not focus on that now, we need to win this battle first, and whatever comes after is meant to be.’ Menin checked her surroundings and clicked her tongue for the horse to continue. ‘We’re not too far from the clearing, are you ready for this?’

‘Ready as I’ll ever be. It’s not going to be an easy thing to kill myself.’

‘Don’t think of it like that. It’s not suicide when you consider you will return to your own body.’ Menin patted his arm. ‘Besides, if you can switch before you hit the bottom of the pit, so much the better.’

Menin and Coinin exited the trees and ventured into a large clearing.

‘Here we are,’ Menin announced. She dismounted her horse and proceeded to tether the animal to a tree.

In the centre of the clearing a wooden platform decayed, its frame broken and tinged green with moss. A set of steps led up to the deck. Several workers had begun to enlarge a hole in the decking.

‘As you can see, we are preparing a trap door through which you and the giant will fall.’

Coinin gulped. He had endured nightmares in which he had fallen from great heights before, but this was something else. This was too real.

Menin, oblivious, continued. ‘We shall have a feast ready for you on that platform. All you need to do is lure the giant to the food, and we’ll do the rest.’

‘Tell me again why we can’t just kill him without this entire charade?’

‘Killing that giant was pure luck on Marrok’s part, and I will say again I cannot spare the men to even try,’ said Menin. ‘If you are not ready–’

‘I’m ready,’ Coinin interrupted. ‘Will you at least do one thing for me? If I die, please tell my brother that I love him and that I hope that he finds the peace he seeks.’

Coinin looked away briefly. For the first time he felt truly scared, not for himself, but for his brother. Aside from their Uncle Draken, he was the only family Marrok had. The loss of their parents had torn Marrok apart. For his brother to die also would surely send Marrok into despair.

‘I promise I will do that for you, and you should know that if the unthinkable were to happen, then Marrok will always have a home with the order.’

Coinin looked away; a single tear ran down the giant’s nose and his heart skipped a beat as a fresh wave of panic set in. The link was stronger still.

‘Laliala, I need to do this now before I change my mind. Which way?’ Coinin asked, and fought hard to control his fear.

‘Follow me.’ Menin raced off into the trees, followed by Coinin, who was careful not to step on her as he forced his way between the thick branches.

Several minutes later Menin stopped behind a large tree with her back to the bark. She dropped to her knees and picked up a stick, and then invited Coinin to join her.

‘We are here.’ Menin drew a semicircle in the dirt that indicated the trees, and a cross that showed their position. ‘Just beyond the trees is open space. A little way up the hill is your cave. The giant should be there, got that?’ She drew an arrow in the direction of the cave.

‘Yes, but how do I find my way back to the pit?’ Coinin asked, and scratched his head.

‘That bit is simple.’ Menin winked. ‘I will mark you a path, thus.’ She stood and removed a decorative knife from a sheath in her belt, and with it carved three distinctive grooves into the bark of the tree. ‘All you have to do is follow these back. I will ensure there are plenty for you to spot.’

‘Like a trail of breadcrumbs? Very clever.’

‘Exactly.’ Menin smiled warmly. ‘Are you ready?’

‘Yes,’ Coinin replied, though he did not feel confident in the slightest.

‘Good. Now, if you can spare me twenty minutes to make my way back, and to check preparations are complete, I will just say may the gods be with you.’ Menin nodded, and her eyes smiled. ‘Oh, and thank you.’

Curator Menin turned sharply back towards the pit, and disappeared into the semi-darkness. Coinin felt alone for the first time in days. This did not particularly worry him, it just had the unfortunate side effect of giving him time in which to think. That he did not want to do; he knew it could weaken his resolve to complete his task. He had to do this, people counted on him, and besides, if he didn’t, he would never be able to look the lovely Reena in the eyes again. It was the thought of seeing Reena that gave him a renewed sense of purpose. He would succeed at all costs.

After he had sat in deep thought for a while, he rose and worked out a cramp in his legs, and then set off. He brushed his way past tree after tree, until he broke free of the tree line. Ahead of him was a grassy incline, and in the distance, the natural rock wall of the volcano rose dark against the early morning sky. The first rays of sunlight had begun to breach the rock sides of the Sanctuary. Coinin squinted and brought a hand up to shade his eyes, and after a moment he spied the cave in the rock wall. Steeling himself, he stomped through the dewy grass.

The giant, who had waited patiently outside the cave, saw his kin approach. He greeted his kind willingly, but with an ingrained suspicion, as was the giant way. Friends in the giant world were rare. The race was in a constant state of conflict, and apt to kill one another where they stood for a mere morsel of food. As a result, the multitude of clans from the Northern Waste had all but destroyed each other. Only a handful of clans remained, and in times of food shortages would form brief alliances to skirmish for sustenance in other lands. Other than that, the only time giants were seen together in numbers was if hired to fight. Often food was payment enough, although gold and its value had entered the consciousness of the giant mind, and greed had become the driving force of most clan leaders. After all, gold bought you mountains of food, if you had enough. It had escalated to the point that the leaders sent out raiders to sack towns and villages in search of the shiny metal.

Coinin approached the seated giant, who sat and flicked rocks at a nearby tree stump. His hit rate left something to be desired. One look at the scattered rocks told him that, alongside a hasty dodge of an incoming missile. The giant looked exceedingly grumpy, and frighteningly large, as Coinin knelt next to him.

‘Wha’ you want?’ the giant grunted.

‘I found food,’ Coinin replied, trying to simplify his response.

The giant’s reaction was instant; his drooped shoulders straightened and he looked at Coinin with a toothy grin. ‘Where?’

‘In the woods.’ Coinin indicated behind him. ‘We go eat, yes?’

The giant looked about him with a puzzled expression on his dirty face. ‘Where Glurp?’

Coinin was momentarily stunned. ‘Glurp?’ What was a Glurp?

‘Friend Glurp. Where he?’ said the giant, and appeared annoyed.

Coinin breathed again, remembering the now dead giant on the other side of the woods. He started to panic, and he thought quickly. What could he say?

‘He meet us at food,’ he bluffed in the hope he did not sound too intelligent.

The giant scowled at him and cocked his head, and then after a moment he again sported his toothy grin. He heaved his heavy frame from his seated position and stretched with a deafening groan.

Coinin took this as a sign that he had won a small victory; the giant was hungry, as Menin had predicted.

‘Come,’ said Coinin and indicated that the giant should follow him.

Both giants stomped down the grassy hill and into the trees, and Coinin noted again that his counterpart was considerably larger than he, albeit not as muscular. All hope was that Menin’s ploy would work. He did not stand a chance in a fair fight with this beast, even if he did resemble a lump of congealed bull fat.

As they fought their way through the trees, Coinin scanned ahead for Menin’s telltale tree carvings to point the way. At first he had not spotted any, until his companion swung a large tree branch out of the way and released it, only for it to swing back at Coinin, who then howled as it struck him in the nose. Fortune, though, had favoured him, for as he rubbed his sore nose he spied Menin’s mark clear as day.

‘Dis way,’ said Coinin, clutching his nose.

The giant laughed heartily at Coinin’s bloody nose, and traipsed off in the direction indicated.

Minutes later, they could smell it before they saw it. Mouth-watering wafts of roast pig invaded their senses. Never mind that the other giant was hungry, he was too. He secretly hoped that he would get to taste what must be succulent meat before they took a long drop to nowhere.

The trees began to thin, and suddenly they were in the clearing. In the centre was the wooden platform, and upon this a dozen roasted pigs waited to be devoured. A carcass had been abandoned on its spit above a roaring fire. Coinin’s heart threatened to burst from his chest, as he realised that they must have disturbed Zaruun and his men mid preparation. He puzzled how they had had time to cook so many pigs, and then remembered they were wizards. Time was inconsequential to them.

His companion’s eyes lit up as he rushed forward and jumped on to the platform. Coinin’s heart dropped. He thought for a moment that the platform would collapse under the giant’s weight. It creaked and groaned in protest, but held fast.

The giant barely noticed Coinin clamber aboard the platform, content to stuff his face with roast pig. Coinin positioned himself as close to the other giant as possible, and ensured they were both over the trapdoor. He looked about him, and his heart thumped hard in his chest. The wait for the floor to drop away was scary, but nothing happened.

At the edge of the clearing, a figure waved frantically. It was Zaruun, Menin’s personal guard, who beckoned to him.

‘I find Glurp,’ Coinin muttered. He did not expect a reply, the giant was too busy tucking into a mass of pork belly. He stepped off the platform and half ran, half walked to Zaruun.

Coinin found him in near panic. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, and looked from Zaruun to Menin.

‘Together you are too heavy for the trapdoor mechanism to work,’ said Zaruun, his brow beaded with sweat.

‘How about now? I’m not on it.’ Coinin eyed the platform.

‘That’s the other problem; the catch must have stuck somehow. Perhaps it has bent. You will have to release it by hand.’

Coinin sighed deeply. ‘Where is it?’

‘Follow the rope, you’ll see it.’ Zaruun pointed to a thick rope that trailed into the clearing. ‘Just pull the pin and that’s it.’

‘If it doesn’t work?’

Zaruun and Menin looked at each other and shrugged.

Coinin rolled his eyes and looked for an answer from the gods. The stress was palpable. ‘Oh, that’s just great! I’m panicked as it is, and you don’t have a back-up plan.’

‘I guess we would have to use a destruction spell on the platform, but that runs the high risk of knocking the giant from it and not into the pit. For that to work effectively, however, we would need to be exceptionally close, which in itself runs a risk of being spotted,’ Menin responded.

‘Coinin, you must go now,’ Zaruun said. ‘That food will not last much longer.’

‘Fine, but after this I’m done, I can’t take the strain.’ He strode off towards the platform, and muttered oaths under his breath as he went.

Indeed, by the time Coinin arrived back at the platform, the giant had almost eaten all of the food. His stomach looked bloated, and he had a dreamy satisfied look about him.

As Coinin approached, he spotted the trapdoor mechanism. It was an iron bolt that slid. On closer inspection it did appear to be slightly bent. The bolt was attached to the rope Coinin had followed, and was greased with fish pulp to ensure it slid between two brackets easily. However, the sheer weight of the giant prevented it from being operated by human hands.

Utilising his giant strength, Coinin wrapped the rope around his forearm, grasped it with the other, and tugged. The bolt slid fractionally, so he tugged again. There was a yell and the giant on the platform disappeared.

Coinin dropped the rope and clambered aboard the platform. All but one pig carcass had gone, and so was the giant. He turned to signal to Zaruun that they had succeeded, when a large hand grasped his ankle.

The giant’s hand tugged hard, and he kicked free to turn in blind panic. The giant had not fallen to his death; instead he attempted to use Coinin to clamber out of the pit.

The giant again made a lunge for his leg, and Coinin only just managed to sidestep. Seconds later a horse galloped up behind him, and although he could not afford to look around, he assumed it was Menin.

‘Do I have to do everything for you?’ Marrok yelled, and drew his sword. Without hesitation he dived headfirst into the pit.

‘No!’ Coinin screamed, and lunged for him.

He need not have worried; Marrok had fastened himself to the platform with rope and busily hacked away at the giant’s hands, which desperately clung to the wooden frame of the platform.

‘Come on, fall, you damned monster!’

It took several more slashes with the blade before the giant fell with a silent scream into the fiery depths of the pit. He made a grab for Marrok, but missed by a fingertip, to Coinin’s relief.

Marrok swung slightly in the warm sulphurous updraft that came from the crevice. He looked up and gave Coinin a bloody-faced smile.

‘That was fun,’ he said with the look of a drunkard about him.

‘I will never forgive you for this,’ Coinin snapped.

‘I don’t want your forgiveness. What I do want is to get out of here,’ said Marrok, suddenly annoyed.

‘You got yourself in there, you get yourself out,’ Coinin retorted, and turned his back on his brother.

‘Will you stop acting like such a child, and help me out of this bloody hole!’

Coinin was taken aback; Marrok had never spoken to him quite like that before, even when they had argued as children. He realised in that instant that Marrok had watched over him ever since their parents’ deaths. Right now he continued to put his brother in grave danger with his selfish actions.

‘You are right, Marrok, I’m sorry.’ Coinin lowered his head in shame. His brother had risked his life for him, and he had repaid him with the behaviour of a child. He turned back, reached into the hole, and yanked his brother out by his outstretched arm. Marrok winced; his arm felt as if it had been ripped from its socket. Coinin swung him and deposited him in a heap.

‘Thanks.’ Marrok sat where he had landed and rubbed his sore shoulder. ‘You nearly tore my arm off.’

‘Sorry,’ Coinin mumbled, unable to look Marrok in the eye.

Marrok paused a minute to regain his breath, and then attempted to untie the rope around his chest without success. ‘Would you?’

Coinin inwardly smiled. His brother’s temper was short-lived. He knelt before him and pulled hard, and with a snap the rope parted.

Marrok stood and stretched. ‘Come on, there’s still work to do.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, but first we have to stop and pick up a friend, he has important information for Menin.’

Marrok sprinted to the tree line at the far side of the clearing, followed by Coinin’s thunderous footfalls that scared the birds from the trees.

A few feet into the trees, Marrok pointed to a man who lay on the ground, writhing in great pain. ‘Coinin, can you carry him to Menin?’ he asked.

Coinin grunted and walked to the man. He knelt beside a bloodied Lieutenant Quindil who had lost a good portion of his left arm. Coinin baulked at the sight. The stump had been tied up with cloth, and Marrok had carried him there on horseback.

‘Don’t be afraid, I’m here to help. I will take you to Curator Menin,’ Coinin told the man as he hoisted him into his huge arms. He stood and turned and then headed back to the clearing, only to find Menin and Zaruun had come to investigate their sudden disappearance.

Menin’s face turned ashen, and without a moment’s hesitation she rushed to them. ‘Su’un, what happened to you?’ she asked. ‘Please, Coinin, put him down here; I will see to it that his wounds are treated.’

Coinin did as instructed and carefully laid Quindil against a nearby tree, and then stepped back.

Menin dropped to her knees at Quindil’s side and examined his wounds. She shook her head. ‘This man will not survive without immediate help. Zaruun, please send for a healer.’

Zaruun nodded, and without hesitation sped back into the clearing.

Quindil grasped Menin by the collar and pulled her to him. Despite the intense pain shown on his face, he whispered something to her and then passed into unconsciousness.

Menin stumbled back and landed on her rear. She had a look of shock about her, and a hand went to her mouth as she sucked in a deep breath.

‘This is bad,’ she said. ‘Jericho, you fool.’

Coinin looked at Marrok, who shrugged at him, puzzled.

Menin composed herself and stood. ‘Gentlemen, it seems General Jericho was taken by a dragon during his fight with a dark wizard.’

Coinin gulped. ‘I thought dragons were a myth.’

‘We had thought they were extinct, but this proves otherwise. The question remains, is someone using them as a weapon, and if so, who?’ Menin frowned. ‘I doubt Jericho’s disappearance is coincidental.’

‘You think he was taken on purpose?’ Marrok asked sceptically.

‘It’s quite possible. An unknown enemy wants to destroy us. They certainly made a good attempt at it. Now they’ve taken my most trusted and experienced general, leaving us vulnerable.’

‘Do you think they will try to attack us again?’ Marrok asked, and half expected to see a fresh horde of goblins head his way.

‘Perhaps; we are in a weakened state, but I doubt it will be today. It takes time to muster an army that size. However, I will post guards to ensure we are not taken by surprise again.’

‘I volunteer,’ Marrok immediately offered.

‘No, Marrok, I thank you, but I need you elsewhere. There is a cave of goblins to dispatch, and your natural lethality hasn’t gone unnoticed.’

Marrok visibly swelled with pride. ‘Where is this cave?’

‘Coinin will show you, won’t you?’

Coinin was conflicted. He had said he would not perform further tasks for Menin, but the situation had worsened. How could he refuse when his brother was up to the challenge? ‘Yes, of course,’ he said. ‘But I thought we had to destroy this giant’s body?’

‘All in good time. Let’s rid the Sanctuary of these foul beasts first.’

Coinin nodded his assent, not overly happy with the decision, but Menin knew what she was doing. At least he hoped she did.

‘Marrok, follow me,’ Coinin growled sullenly.

‘Coinin, wait,’ Menin said. ‘I will have a troop of men meet you at the cave. Do not try to take them by yourself.’

Marrok muttered something unflattering about his desire to tackle this himself, which prompted Coinin to kick him in the shin, only to knock him off his feet.

‘Sorry,’ said Coinin, with a cringe.

Marrok looked at him with daggers in his eyes. ‘You are getting far too big for your boots.’

Menin sighed from behind them, hands on hips. ‘Perhaps you are yet too young for this task, I will send someone else.’

‘No, please, Curator,’ Coinin begged. ‘I’m sorry for my actions. I don’t yet have full control of this body.’

‘I just don’t know if I can trust you to accomplish this task.’

‘You trusted me to kill the other giant. Why do you distrust me now?’

‘It’s not a matter of distrust in that sense, Coinin,’ Menin began. ‘It is that I believe that you may be too young for this task.’

‘I’m too young to kill goblins, but old enough to be Curator. You need to make your mind up, Menin.’ Had he not risked his life? Indeed, he risked it even more the longer he stayed in the mind of the giant. He would show her that he was capable of this duty.

‘Marrok, with me,’ Coinin demanded.

Marrok looked from his brother to Menin, confused.

‘I said with me,’ Coinin spat, and stormed off into the trees.

‘He’s my brother, despite the fact that he’s an annoying little toad.’

‘I understand, Marrok,’ Menin said, ‘but please take good care of him. I fear we may have need of him yet.’

Marrok nodded and trotted after Coinin. ‘That was very rude,’ he shouted when he caught up with him.

‘I had every right to be rude; I’m putting my life on the line for her. The least she could do is trust me, even a little.’

‘It seems to have escaped your notice, but I too am risking my life.’

Coinin was pierced with pangs of shame. He stopped abruptly. He fell to his knees with a sickening crunch, and put his hands to his face and cried.

Despite his anger, this threw Marrok. ‘Coinin, what is it?’

‘I don’t know, one minute I’m angry, the next I just want to cry,’ Coinin said between sobs.

‘I don’t like this, Coinin, I think you’ve been in there too long. Please, let me help you out of there.’

‘What about the goblins?’

‘Forget the goblins, you are far more important. Menin will manage without us.’

Coinin shakily stood, and took a moment to steady himself against a tree, only to then hyperventilate.

‘What’s wrong?’ said Marrok, the worry evident in his furrowed brow.

‘Everything is blurred.’

‘Damn, we need to get you to the pit, and quickly, before you collapse and we have the real giant to contend with. Come on, let’s move!’

Coinin grunted and howled in pain, but rose to his feet and staggered after Marrok back into the clearing. His vision blurred again, and an excruciating pain behind his eyes near crippled him. He collapsed with a thud onto all fours just feet from the platform.

‘Come on, Coinin, you are nearly there.’

‘I can’t, I just can’t,’ said Coinin, the pain evident in his voice.

‘You can and you will. You are far stronger than you know.’

Fortified by his brother’s words, Coinin found a renewed strength to climb the wooden platform. In agony he crawled to the pit edge and after a final nod to his brother he threw himself in. His feet collided with the edge of the deck and tore away a portion of the platform as he fell. He plummeted in silence with only the rushing wind for company as he waited for the imminent splash into the fiery lake.

He looked back up to the surface. The light from the opening grew dimmer, and he had just enough time to catch the silhouette of Marrok peer down at him. It was at this moment that he truly felt scared.

Back on the platform, Marrok breathed easier, only to find Curator Menin had hobbled over to him from the other side of the clearing.

‘What happened?’ she cried.

‘He was in the giant’s head too long. It made him sick, that’s why he behaved so oddly,’ Marrok replied.

‘Oh my, Marrok, I am sorry. If I knew, I would have ordered him out of there immediately.’

‘We have to get back to the temple. He should be there waiting for us.’

‘Yes, of course, take my horse and I will meet you there.’ She pointed into the trees to where her mount stood.

‘Thanks.’ Marrok nodded to the woman and hurried off.

Menin clambered aboard the platform and looked into the hole with some satisfaction, and then turned to the trees with hands on hips and cursed her luck. ‘Goblins,’ she sighed.

Marrok had raced to the edge of the clearing, where just inside the trees Menin’s horse stood patiently. He untied it and leapt into the saddle. His feet found the stirrups automatically. He navigated the horse through the trees until finally he came out onto the battlefield. He urged the horse into a gallop, and it seemed to enjoy the freedom as they sped towards the temple, its mane billowing in the breeze. He did his best to avoid piles of dead goblins, which grew steadily larger with every moment that passed, now that the workers hauled the dead flesh into small hillocks.

As he neared the temple, he noted that a rebuild of the outer wall had already begun. Men and women frantically cleared away debris and hastily erected scaffolding for the restoration.

On the final approach to the temple, he had to slow the horse for fear of being impaled by nervous archers. Eventually he was waved through the remains of the gate. He raced up the footpath and around passersby, to their consternation.

He had no idea where Coinin would be, and as he pulled up outside the temple, he looked for someone who would know. Typically, he had ridden past everyone on the footpath, and there appeared to be no one around. Perhaps there were people inside the temple who might know where his brother was? He kicked himself for not having the common sense to ask Menin before he set off.

He dismounted from the horse, ventured inside the battered facade of the building, and was greeted with the hustle and bustle of men and women who busily made repairs or cleared up. They didn’t waste time, he thought, and halted in front of a dust-covered woman who wore sackcloth about her waist. ‘Excuse me, might you know where my brother is being held?’ he asked hopefully.

‘If he is a prisoner, I reckon the guardhouse,’ the woman surmised.

‘Oh, he’s not a prisoner.’

‘Well, in that case I don’t rightly know. You could try asking Master Ignatius, he knows most things that happen here,’ the woman said, with a swipe of her hand to move hair out of her eyes.

‘Where will I find him?’ The desperation in his voice seeped through.

‘Well, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he’s usually in the vineyard tending to his crop, but as today is Sunday, he’s probably drinking it.’ The woman allowed herself a giggle at her own joke, but saw that Marrok was far from amused, and continued. ‘I should try the winery, it’s through the vineyard, you can’t miss it.’

‘Thank you,’ Marrok said quite politely, although inside he cursed the woman.

‘You are quite welcome,’ said the woman, and returned to her work.

He ran back outside into the sunshine and scanned the area for a vineyard. It only took a few seconds to spot. There it was, mostly untouched by the hostilities. The vines still standing were full of plump and juicy red grapes.

Just visible above the crop, Marrok could see the crown of a tiled roof. He took off at speed, and did his best to skirt workers as they toiled.

He ducked through a small gap in the vines, winding his way through the maze of the plantation, the smell of grape blossom strong and inviting. Finally the small building was in front of him, made from finely carved sandstone.

Outside, several barrels sat in various states of disrepair, and a small man in a leather waistcoat and an oversized straw hat tended to one of them.

‘Even war doesn’t stop winemaking, I see,’ said Marrok, bemused.

The small man looked up and a bushy moustache twitched. ‘The Curator considers me too old to help with the cleanup. I’m only ninety-five, and you’d think I was one hundred and five or something, the way these youngsters go on. I don’t know, the youth of today–’

‘Are you Master Ignatius?’ Marrok interrupted.

‘The youth of today,’ he continued. ‘No patience to listen to an old man prattle on. No, I’m Cooper, Master Ignatius is inside.’

‘Thank you very much.’ Marrok stepped up to a wooden door in the side of the building and opened it. It gave a satisfying squeak as he pushed it, and a blast of cold air hit him.

He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. In front of him was a rough wooden railing. He walked up to it and instantly saw why. Below him, umpteen subterranean floors dropped away into darkness, each bordered by a similar rail that followed a spiral pattern around the endless drop. Each floor seemed to be full to the brim with enormous barrels, stacked side by side, presumably filled with wine.

Marrok jumped back as a very odd looking man with a very bushy beard, bulging eyes, and a balding pate popped his head over the railing and said, ‘Hello,’ rather loudly. Despite his advanced age, he swung his legs over the rail as lithely as any younger man and landed next to Marrok, whose heart still pounded.

‘Ignatius Rindwold, at your service,’ said the elderly man, and grabbed Marrok’s hand and then pumped it up and down vigorously.

‘Marrok–’

‘Wulf, yes, yes, I know of you. Welcome, dear boy, to the winery.’

Marrok’s interest had been seized by the sheer size of the winery, and he could not resist the obvious question. ‘How much wine do you actually need?’

Ignatius laughed loudly. ‘Actually very little, we mainly trade our wine. But I fear you didn’t come here to ask about wine, more’s the pity.’

Marrok nodded. ‘I was told you might know where my brother is.’

‘Coinin? Yes, he is in the infirmary; they took him there right after he returned to us.’

‘So he’s okay?’

‘I don’t have an answer for you; there are some things I am not privy to.’ Ignatius sounded apologetic.

Marrok’s heart skipped a beat. ‘Where’s the infirmary?’ he asked. ‘In fact, what is an infirmary?’

‘Ah now, that is something I can tell you. The infirmary, which is where sick people go to get well, is beneath the Great Hall. They moved it there a number of years ago, after the old one was lost.’

‘Lost?’ Marrok asked, confused.

‘Oh yes, caused quite a stir, let me say. Matron Truelove was the culprit; she had mixed chemicals for a new potion she thought would grow limbs back, after they’ve left the body in a nasty accident, you understand. Anyway, she fell asleep and the next minute there was a huge bang and the whole infirmary floated three thousand spans above ground. We’re still waiting for it to come down, but I don’t suppose it will. Matron Truelove’s potions are pretty strong.’ Ignatius sighed. ‘She was a lovely girl, too.’

‘You mean to tell me that there’s a building floating up in the sky somewhere?’ Marrok asked incredulously.

‘Yes, the whole kit and caboodle. The whole east side of the temple had to be rebuilt after that, of course.’ Ignatius seemed to enjoy his tale. ‘And they do say that sky pirates from the New World take their injured to the sky infirmary. More convenient for them, you see? They don’t have to land. I had thought Truelove would hitch a lift with the pirates and come home, but I suppose she is shamed.’

Marrok nodded. Sky pirates, a floating building, and eccentric wine makers. He had begun to think the world was mad.

‘I’ll just be going then,’ said Marrok as he backed away, his fingers searching for the door handle.

‘Nonsense, dear boy.’ Ignatius sported a wide smile that made his eyes bulge even more, making him appear even more unhinged. He put an arm around Marrok and steered him to the doorway. ‘I shall show you the way.’

Ignatius escorted Marrok into the bright sunlight and waved to Cooper as they passed, who nodded back, and then promptly howled in pain as a hammer struck his thumb.

‘Don’t mind him, he is always doing that. His eyesight isn’t what it used to be.’

‘Perhaps he needs a change of job,’ Marrok suggested.

‘That’d kill him, that would. He is happy enough.’

As they walked, Marrok got the sense that Ignatius itched to ask him something, and after a few minutes, the man’s fidgets irritated him.

‘Why don’t you ask what you want to ask me?’ said Marrok finally.

The sheer delight on Ignatius’s face was visible; it was obvious that he was excited. ‘Is it true you are the last descendants of Soliath Wulf, you and your brother?’

There it was, the same question everyone at the temple desired an answer to. The simple fact was that he did not have a clue. He knew he had been brought to the temple for a reason, and maybe this was the reason, to answer the question that burned on everyone’s lips. He remembered Curator Menin mention a Soliath Wulf. To think that he was related to the old fossil seemed ludicrous. Sure, they shared the same name, but that was hardly proof.

‘I don’t know,’ Marrok said quite simply.

Ignatius’s face dropped at this. ‘Oh.’

‘I’m not saying I’m not, I mean I could be. Coinin may know,’ said Marrok quickly.

Ignatius seemed to perk up at this news. ‘Perhaps it is fate, then, that we go to see Coinin.’

Marrok wished the earth would swallow him up. To have people fawn after him made him embarrassed, and a little annoyed. Perhaps this man would disappear after he had spoken with his brother.

‘Nearly there, Marrok,’ said Ignatius cheerfully. ‘We just need to go down here.’

The old man had stopped outside a cellar entrance cut into the grass on the left-hand side of the temple. Mossy steps led down to an equally moss-covered door; a small covered lantern hung above the entrance to light the way.

‘After you,’ Ignatius said.

Marrok shrugged and descended the steps to the cellar, opened the door and walked inside. The space below the temple was not as pristine as that above ground. The floor and walls were damp, and it was cold here. A corridor headed off into the distance, and the only light came from a series of torches, spaced at regular intervals. They hung from the wall and pooled circles of warm light that guided the way through the coldness of the cellar.

‘It’s not as nice here under the temple, is it?’ Marrok said.

‘The rest of the cellar is dry, but for some reason the corridor remains damp. We haven’t yet determined why. The infirmary is this way; come.’

Ignatius led Marrok to the very end of the corridor and they passed scores of rooms that led off, left and right. The torches warmed his face in the cold hallway as he walked by each one.

Ignatius stopped abruptly before a solid door at the end of the hall, and swung it open. Marrok squinted as a brighter light from the room beyond spilled into the hall, and banished the shadows.

They stepped inside and allowed a moment for their eyes to adjust to the new light level.

The room, besides being brightly lit, was warm and very long. Whitewashed walls held colourful depictions of healers who offered medical aid, and this included some not-so-pleasant surgical procedures. Some of the illustrations peeled in places. Marrok assumed the damp air was not good for them.

The sides of the room were lined with beds that appeared comfortable, each covered with crisp clean linen. Around each bed, four posts held curtains that could be drawn for privacy, and every bed looked to have an occupant, around whom nurses flocked and tended to various wounds.

Down a central aisle, a long low table ran, under which hundreds of drawers spanned the length either side.

A stern-faced woman dressed in a white smock with a pinafore and a fiercely angular head covering marched up to Marrok and Ignatius. ‘Welcome to the infirmary. As you can see, we are very busy. Are you hurt?’

Marrok checked himself for wounds, and apart from the odd scrape or light cut, he was otherwise free from injury. ‘No, not really,’ he replied.

The stern woman looked as fierce as her hat. ‘Then why do you waste my time? There are sick people who need my help. Now please leave.’

‘Matron, this is Marrok Wulf. He is here to see his brother, Coinin,’ said Ignatius.

The woman was suddenly all smiles. ‘I’m sorry for my rudeness, we are quite busy. My name is Didendra Rod’lin; I am matron of the infirmary. Please let me show you to your brother.’

Finally! Marrok thought.

There were quite a number of injured here. Several rows down she stopped outside a curtained bed, the colourful cloth draped heavily, slightly bowing the frame upon which it rested. The curtain was so long it trailed on the floor and the material fluttered as if in a breeze.

‘Here we are. Now I must warn you that there has been a complication.’

‘Complication?’ Marrok asked with a frown. ‘Let me see.’ He pushed forward in an attempt to get to Coinin, but was thwarted by the matron, who gripped his shoulders.

‘Your brother has not returned from his, if I’m the only one to say it, foolish mind swap, completely intact.’ The matron sighed. ‘He is not responsive, and although he is not dead, he is not awake either.’

‘Will he die?’ Marrok asked, and his heart thumped hard. Coinin was his only family; he did not count Draken as kin.

‘I don’t believe so; it’s almost as if he’s taking a very deep sleep. My only hope is that we can revive him.’

‘Can I see him now?’

‘Of course.’ The matron smiled at him, and indicated that he should enter the curtained space.

Half a dozen individuals of dwarven appearance surrounded the bed, puzzling over Coinin’s condition with excited chatter. They were dressed in blue smocks much too big for them, and were in the process of examining Coinin under the direction of the smallest of the group. He held a thick parchment and ordered the others to check this and that. He had upon his head a droopy cloth cap, similar in appearance to a nightcap, and his blue robe appeared to be stained with blood. His long hooked nose held a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, the lenses of which magnified his eyes to impossible proportions. He sucked on a long, thin tobacco pipe that he waved frantically as he gave instructions. His voice was thin and reedy, with an impatient air about it.

‘No, no, it goes in his ear, you fool,’ the dwarf yelled in a high-pitched voice. He grabbed a long trumpet-shaped object from one of his companions and held it aloft. ‘This is not a toy, it is a delicate instrument. Let me demonstrate.’

The dwarf walked to the head of the bed, and pushed his colleagues aside, and then clambered aboard a set of steps. He then promptly stuck the trumpet, thin end first, into Coinin’s ear.

‘Boy, can you hear me? Wake up!’ the dwarf shouted into the thick end of the trumpet.

Marrok had seen enough; he marched up to the dwarf and picked him up with one hand.

‘What are you doing? Put me down this instant!’ the dwarf cried, outraged.

‘What am I doing? I should ask you the same. What are you doing to my brother?’ Marrok demanded of the dwarf, who dangled in front of his face.

‘Marrok, no!’ Matron Rod’lin gasped, her face aghast. ‘This is Doctor Zarth, our resident healer. He is trying to help your brother.’

‘You had better put me down, young man, or I will be forced to use violence,’ Doctor Zarth yelled, his face red from the effort to release himself from Marrok’s grip. To emphasise his point, he rapped Marrok on the forehead with the thick end of the trumpet, to no effect.

Marrok snorted, and set the dwarf down without a word. He was more concerned with Coinin, who lay silent and peaceful.

‘Please leave us,’ Marrok said quietly.

‘But I have so many more tests to perform. My students may never have the same opportunity to learn from such a case again,’ Doctor Zarth objected.

‘I think, good Doctor, that your tests will have to wait,’ said Ignatius with a kindly smile as he gently pushed Zarth out of the cubicle, much to the dwarf’s annoyance.

Matron Rod’lin shooed the doctor’s students from Marrok’s presence and closed the curtain behind her.

Marrok looked at his brother, ignoring the complaints from Zarth and the efforts of the others to silence him that penetrated the curtained cubicle. He took Coinin’s hand and held it tight, in the hope he could squeeze life back into it. The hand was warm at least, so he knew his brother was not dead.

‘Where are you, brother?’ Marrok pleaded, the knowledge that he had failed to protect him consuming him with guilt. ‘What can I do to make this right?’

DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Five.

December 31, 2017 Leave a comment

THE BATTLE

The scene of devastation outside the temple grounds left a lump in the throat, and rent the hearts of onlookers. The sheer destruction of the once beautiful grounds brought a tear to many an eye and fuelled anger in others.

Amidst campfires, thousands of goblins, overshadowed by four giants, prepared for battle. Ancient trees had been uprooted and honed into clubs by the handful of giants. They drove huge iron spikes into the ends and tested the lethality of each.

On the front line, goblin chiefs and shaman leaders issued orders to the rabble before them, their orb staffs glowing multitudes of colours. They were a deadly force, yet disorganised, and that was often their downfall. The old adage: ‘Too many cooks…’ applied to their military leadership, but thousands had amassed, alongside several mountain trolls and the giants, and this was an unusual occurrence.

The invaders had formed a huge semicircle in front of the temple gates, and the roar of the horde deafened all in its vicinity. Several crude animal horns added to the noise, and psyched the goblin army for war.

On the temple side of the gates, several battlemages stood deep in concentration, keeping an enchantment upon the gates, which was at present the only thing that kept the attackers at bay. These few men and women after years of study and discipline provided the primary protection for the order.

The Archmage and Curator, alongside a dozen permitted mages, were the only others capable of tapping into the elemental forces in this manner. Their actions drained the mind and body and even though the effects were often only temporary, these skills were used only in times of dire need, and in this instance, to allow the gathered troops to make ready.

A dozen goblins lay dead at the foot of the huge gates. Every so often a chieftain would send an unwilling volunteer to approach them. As the volunteer grasped its bars, a purple flash emitted from the metal. The goblin would spasm, endure heart failure, and froth at the mouth, to then drop dead.

Curator Menin had changed her clothing; she looked magnificent in steel and white. A red sash ran left to right across her chest, emblazoned with the temple’s emblem. She wore the Rose of Cerathil proudly upon her chest and a sword dangled at her side. Strapped to her left arm was a shaped steel shield with sharpened edges. She limped from her study onto a balcony that overlooked the battlefield. Her closest aides and generals followed and took position beside her. To their left stood a grand stone table with a rough map of the area, and carved figures represented the combatants below.

Menin surveyed her troops. ‘Lieutenant General Torith, I think the left flank is weak.’

Torith looked up from his map, scanned his men and nodded with a grunt. He called a runner to him. ‘Send word to Captain Dalbo to move his men to the vineyard.’

The runner saluted and took off at full pelt. Torith turned to Menin. ‘My apologies, it will not happen again.’ He bowed respectfully.

‘See that it does not,’ said General Jericho tersely.

Torith returned to his map and altered his figurines to match his order.

‘He’s not himself of late,’ said Jericho quietly.

‘His wife nearly lost their first child during his birth. I think we can go easy on him,’ replied Menin. ‘Would you find and fetch Coinin for me?’

‘You want me to leave, now? I could send one of my men.’

‘No, I don’t trust anyone else with his safety.’

‘Very well, just don’t start without me.’ Jericho turned and left the balcony.

Inside the temple, Coinin did a double take as Marrok exited the armoury. He was clad head to toe in the finest of plate armour, and over this he wore a white cloak that bore the emblem of Soliath Wulf. His head was covered by a red cloth wound tightly around it, and over this sat a domed steel helmet. He carried a long spear and a serrated sword in his hands, and he looked very pleased with himself. He clanked as he walked, but did not care; the armour was so fine that he lost almost no ability to move.

‘That, young sir, is armour cast in the very best elfen forges; it has superior strength and can withstand almost any spear or arrow. Nevertheless, be warned, do not let its strength go to your head. If one of those giants hits you with one of their clubs, it will buckle like any other armour,’ Rendal warned.

Marrok nodded that he understood and watched Coinin as he donned his own armour. His was lighter, and consisted mostly of chain mail.

‘I am sorry we did not have full armour in your size. Yet rest easy, the mail is the finest the elfs have to offer, and will give you almost the same protection.’ Rendal clasped Coinin’s shoulder with a huge hand that almost buckled his knees.

‘Thank you, Rendal.’ Coinin coughed nervously.

‘This is your first time in battle, I think.’

Coinin nodded, a worried look on his face.

Rendal smiled reassuringly. ‘Stick with me and you’ll be fine.’

‘That you will, brother; you’ve got me.’ Marrok beamed, and tested the feel of his sword with a swish through the air.

‘Actually,’ a voice said behind them, ‘Coinin’s presence is required by Curator Menin.’

They turned to see General Jericho, who looked proud and serious. He was dressed in gold trimmed armour.

‘Coinin, please accompany me immediately.’

‘But what about Marrok?’ Coinin asked, and took a quick glance at his brother.

‘I think you and I both know Marrok has waited for such a day for a long time. He will be in his element.’

‘I don’t know,’ Coinin began.

‘Rendal will have his back, will you not, old friend?’ Jericho said.

‘He could not be in safer hands.’ Rendal held his shovel-sized hands in the air and uttered a guffaw.

Marrok finished his swordplay and joined the group. ‘This is an excellent weapon, perfectly balanced. I’d rather preserve father’s sword. May I keep this?’

Jericho nodded. ‘Yes, you can keep the sword. You see, Coinin, he is fine.’

Coinin conceded defeat and clasped his brother’s arm. ‘Marrok, please be careful.’

Marrok merely grunted a response, happy with his new prize.

‘Show me the way, General.’

Jericho nodded to Rendal, turned and swished his way down a long white corridor, his cloak flapping as he went. Coinin had a job to keep up with the tall man and did so at a trot.

‘Why do you think Curator Menin wants to see me?’

‘She believes you are important to the order, and so until you are proven not to be, you must be,’ Jericho replied.

They wound their way through corridor after corridor, ascended a grand marble staircase, and finally arrived outside the Curator’s study. At each side of the large wooden door, a guard stood ready. They saluted at Jericho’s presence, but lowered their spears as Coinin approached.

‘Easy, gentlemen, Coinin is here by Menin’s request,’ Jericho announced.

‘Very well, go on in, she is on the balcony,’ said the guard to the right of the door.

Jericho pushed open the door and ushered Coinin inside and then closed it securely behind them. More guards and nods of recognition greeted them. The room, however, had changed somewhat. The usual bookshelves were pushed to the side of the room and large flaxen dust covers were placed over the shelves that held Menin’s personal library. In the centre of the room, several dwarves huddled together around Menin’s desk to examine their battle options.

‘We have more reinforcements arriving soon,’ Coinin overheard a dwarf say.

‘Aye, but if she don’t use us there’s no point them coming,’ said another.

Jericho whisked Coinin through the hubbub and out into the bright sunshine of the balcony. Menin’s generals looked grave; things didn’t appear to be going too well judging by their expressions. Jericho stepped over to Menin and lightly touched her shoulder, and then whispered in her ear. She nodded and thanked him, and he disappeared into the crowd of onlookers on the balcony. Curator Menin stepped forward, gave a huge smile and grasped Coinin by the hand.

‘Welcome, Coinin. I am glad you could make it. This will prove to be a day of loss for all assembled. Although, I feel, we have the advantage.’ She pointed at him. ‘You.’

‘Curator? I–’ Coinin began.

‘Call me Laliala.’

‘Laliala, then.’ Coinin had begun to feel left out of some big secret. ‘Why does everyone say I’m important? I don’t feel important.’

‘You are important because you and your brother are the last descendants of Soliath Wulf,’ Menin replied.

‘Why is that important?’

‘Coinin, I promise I will explain all, but right now I have a battle to win. Please join the others and observe how a battle is fought and won.’ Menin’s tone was more order than request, and this left Coinin with little choice but to do as she asked. He knew that there were more pressing matters to attend to, and his questions would be answered eventually, but it did intrigue if not infuriate.

A great crash shook the temple, and spectators looked on in horror as three of the largest giants smashed their way into the compound. A sizeable hole had appeared in the wall that surrounded the gardens, and a giant stepped though the gap and over the rubble.

He immediately began to swing his club at any unfortunate that stood in his way. Elfen archers took aim upon the orders of their captain, and let loose, only to watch their missiles bounce harmlessly off the tough leathery hide of the invader. A line of crimson-cloaked battlemages, the elite, cast a variety of spells at the giant, all to no avail. Menin yelled above the din. ‘Trip him! Fell him!’

A squad of burly soldiers stepped forward and enticed the giant to follow them. They threw rocks and hurled abuse at the hulking mass. The beast took the bait and tried to crush them underfoot. A small group of men lay in wait. They had tied a thick rope to a sturdy tree at the side of the central garden pathway, and pulled it taut across the path, creating a tripwire.

The giant roared in triumph as he trod on a hapless warrior and side-swiped a second with his lethal club. This distraction, however, was his downfall. He had failed to notice the rope across his path. His ankle caught the obstruction and he tripped. He crashed to the ground and sent a dust cloud into the air that choked all in the vicinity. His forehead took the brunt of the fall and bled heavily.

The defenders wasted no time. Four of the largest men leapt onto the giant’s shoulders and pulled their way up the torso, until they were at the head. They drew swords and struck, and pierced the skull at its base. The defeated giant let out a roar of pain and clambered onto his knees. He tried to knock his attackers from their precarious perches, but failed. He was already losing his ability to coordinate his actions.

The troops, balanced on his skull, struck repeatedly until finally the giant’s eyes glazed over and he fell dead with a second deafening thud.

A great cheer erupted in the compound at the giant’s defeat, but was soon stifled as a mass of ugly green bodies swarmed at them from the newly created entry point. Elfen archers did their best to down many of the enemy, but the bodies were so tightly packed together that hundreds made it into the compound to meet lines of battlemages.

From his vantage point, Coinin could hear the roar of battle and witness steel as it struck flesh and bone. Arrows whistled through the air, aimed at the enemy below, and the whoosh and crack of spells intermingled with yells and roars, but all the time his concern was for Marrok. He frantically searched the grounds for him, but could not see him. He closed his eyes and concentrated, and summoned all his strength to locate his brother.

He pushed the sounds of battle far back from his consciousness, and allowed only light to enter his mind, then focused on Marrok’s presence and sought his brother’s aura. He felt light and dizzy, as he seemed to leave his physical being and float above the battleground.

As he traversed the compound in his disembodied way, the battle flashed before him in a myriad of colours that swirled so intensely that they took on a tangible texture of their own, as they swished and curled around him like silken ribbons. The colours felt so tactile that Coinin was able to touch the strands, but to his dismay they lasted mere moments and vanished into the air the moment he touched them.

He paused momentarily to let a giant pass by. He did not know why he did that; the giant could neither see, nor touch him. He was sickened to see the giant pick up a horse with his bare hands. It screamed in terror as the giant proceeded to tear it in two and toss the pieces aside with the shocked rider still ensconced in her saddle.

The battle had become bloodier. Bodies lay everywhere. Men, women and goblins pleaded for help as they slowly bled to death from their wounds. The fortunate were already dead. For the moment it looked like the giants would win the battle.

Coinin paused next as he witnessed a half-naked soldier held aloft by a group of goblins, who fastened a noose around his neck and dangled him three feet from the ground. Several soldiers were beaten back as they attempted a rescue. To show mercy, an archer stepped forward, drew back his arrow, and fired. The arrow hit true, and pierced the soft flesh of the heart and ended the soldier’s misery.

He moved on in his search, and the colours became more vivid as he sought out his prize. He stopped suddenly, almost as if he had hit a brick wall.

He faced the pitted and hairy back of a giant, the grime visible within his deep pockmarks and scars. Across one shoulder the giant wore a thick leather strap, which had loops of leather attached at regular intervals. The giant turned slowly, and Coinin could hear it now, the screams of terrified men. Worse, he could see them, trapped in the giant’s leather strap, held tight by loops of leather. A couple of the prisoners appeared to have perished, crushed to death from the tightness of the restraints.

What would this giant do with his prisoners, and where was Marrok? Why had he not found him yet? The giant turned to face him, and then he saw what he had missed. There, firmly attached to the giant’s strap, was Marrok; his aura blazed a deep shade of blue.

Coinin’s heart sank. He had to do something, he could not let his brother die like this. Then it happened without warning, he felt as if he had been cleaved down the middle and his head seared in pain. In the blink of an eye he was elsewhere and nowhere at the same time.

The place, if it was a place, was a sheer brilliant white and made him squint. There were no forms or shapes that could be seen, just a white nothingness. Coinin felt frightened that his magic had somehow backfired. Was he dead and in the heavens having failed to save his brother? He had debated this when a somehow familiar and yet unfamiliar voice rent the air.

‘Coinin, I know what you are thinking, that you must be dead, correct?’ the voice boomed.

Coinin gulped, unsure if he should answer. ‘Well, I had considered it, yes,’ he replied eventually.

The voice laughed heartily. ‘Let me reassure you that you are not dead, but you are in a place between, well, let’s say between everything. I have brought you here as I have heard your cry of anguish, and I have a task for you to perform.’

‘My only task at the moment is to save my brother from a giant’s cooking pot,’ said Coinin.

‘Then we have the same aim.’

‘Who are you? How can I trust what you say?’

‘If you do not, Marrok will die,’ said the voice solemnly.

‘What is it that I must I do?’

‘I need you to be brave and do the impossible. It may be beyond your abilities right now but you have to at least try,’ said the voice. ‘Let me show you.’

A series of images flashed before him that seemed to make no sense until he felt what he thought was a white-hot poker that had been thrust into the back of his skull. He screamed at the pain and it sobered his mind. Then everything went black followed by a pinhole of light that appeared in the distance of his mind’s eye. The light grew steadily larger, and then he was falling, falling fast into a tunnel of light.

Moments later, he was back in his own body and the images made sense. He shook off the disorientation he felt and steeled himself for the task ahead. He ran to Menin and grabbed her by the arm.

‘Coinin, what is it?’ Menin asked, her attention focused on the battle.

‘He has Marrok, that giant out there.’ Coinin pointed at the lumbering giant who scooped up yet another victim and sandwiched her upside down into a leather loop.

Menin did not look at Coinin or the giant. ‘I am sorry, Coinin, there is nothing that I can do for him. He knew the risks when he agreed to help. We are nearly swamped as it is, and I cannot spare anyone to rescue him.’

Coinin saw red. He again grabbed Menin, but this time more roughly and swung her to face him. He looked her deep in the eyes. ‘I am not asking, I am telling,’ he said, and sounded more courageous than he felt. ‘I am important to you, so the way I see it, assist me or I do not help you.’

Menin’s eyes widened in horror and she shoved him aside just as a boulder the size of a horse slammed into the balcony where Coinin had stood moments earlier.

Chunks of marble balustrade showered horrified onlookers, and a dwarf was thrown from the balcony to the cold floor below. A second boulder side-swiped Menin as she attempted to save Coinin from certain death. Blood seeped from a wound to her shoulder, but she shrugged it off and stormed over to Coinin, who shook dust and debris from his hair. She roughly dragged him to his feet.

‘You, sir, are not so important that I should not throw you to the goblins myself,’ she snarled.

Coinin angrily tried to shrug off Menin’s tight grip, but failed, and stood as a rag doll while she shook him. He dropped his head and sighed resignedly.

‘I know how to end the battle,’ he said almost inaudibly.

‘Oh, you know more than General Jericho or I, do you?’ Menin fired back.

Coinin thought for a moment. Would she believe him or would he be carted off in irons?

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I have the ability to search out Marrok with my mind, and while I was doing so I had a vision. I was in a completely white space and a voice spoke to me. I was shown how to save my brother and end this battle.’ He looked down, embarrassed. Even he thought he sounded crazy.

Menin gently raised his chin with her bloodied hand, and looked him deep in the eyes. ‘I believe you. I have also been summoned to this place and told many things that have come to fruition. What is it that we are to do to end this?’

Menin had assembled what remained of her elite battlemages in a semicircle that faced Coinin. He in turn faced the enemy, feeling small and vulnerable, just feet from the fierce battle. Archers kept the goblin advance at bay. The goblins could smell fresh meat, and were tenacious in their desire to taste it.

Coinin signalled he was ready and closed his eyes as the battlemages behind him began to chant. They chanted faster and faster, and he began to feel stronger and more confident as a surge of power built within him. He had told Menin how he must defeat the enemy and she had formulated a plan. The idea had been to focus the combined energy of the battlemages into a single point, in this case a giant a hundred yards away that wreaked havoc on the battlefield.

The chants grew stronger and Coinin began to shake uncontrollably as he absorbed increasingly more energy. He levitated, and his back arched, his arms outstretched and his palms facing upwards. His head began to swim and he began to lose his concentration. Tears streamed down his face as his efforts began to overwhelm him.

Visible streams of light energy snaked their way from the battlemages towards Coinin. He absorbed each in turn and this made him give out the same light energy as he drew its power into him.

‘Focus, Coinin,’ a distant voice in his mind called. ‘You can do this.’

The voice was warm and gave him an instant boost in confidence. He redoubled his focus, and after a few more moments, he was ready.

He concentrated his thoughts on the giant’s, and pictured himself as the giant, hulking, clumsy, and oafish. He imagined what he had eaten for breakfast, what his likes and dislikes were, and then surprisingly quickly, he found himself in the mind of the giant. With a swoop that sent his heart into the roof of his mouth, he was there, and stared out of the giant’s eyes feeling very tall and aggressive. The giant had temporarily vacated, and found himself to be much smaller in stature and now occupied Coinin’s body. Two soldiers caught the mind-swapped body of Coinin as he dropped from his levitation the moment they had switched consciousnesses. They proceeded to restrain him, easier now that he was no longer a thirty-foot-tall giant.

Coinin, now extremely large and powerful, turned to Menin and clumsily signalled he was all right. He reached behind him and unclasped the large leather strap that ran across his shoulder and held the giant’s prisoners. He gently laid the strap on the ground, and signalled for a group of soldiers to come forward and release the captives. Satisfied, he reached down and picked up a tree-sized club, through which vicious-looking spikes exited at varied angles, and tested its weight.

This is going to be easy, Coinin thought.

Inside the temple, Draken had not moved from the Great Hall. He contented himself with staring out of a window that overlooked the battle as he waited for the moment to strike. Sounds of war filtered into the domed hall, and a crash sounded behind him. A large boulder had penetrated the dome and had smashed rows of pews as it rolled to a stop against the wooden plinth. Draken’s guard lay bleeding on the ground beside him, a chunk of debris in Draken’s hand the only sign of foul play. Tossing the rock away he took his cue and abruptly left the hall.

He swept along a darkened corridor and bypassed guards who paid him no heed. He reached the grand hallway that held a marble staircase and wound its way up three flights. He took the steps two at a time, and stepped aside only to allow stretcher-bearers to evacuate the wounded to safety.

The boulders aimed at the temple seemed to have had the desired effect. How effective the damage and distraction would be, Draken could only guess, but he hoped that it would allow him to go unnoticed as he slipped into Curator Menin’s study.

He deliberately avoided eye contact as he stepped over the rubble that filled the corridor. He need not have worried about discovery; no one so far had paid him the slightest attention.

He stopped momentarily and surveyed the damage to Menin’s office. Not a lot that could be recognised remained. Bookshelves were broken and scattered around the room, while books lay torn and shredded alongside equally damaged scrolls. The giants had worked overtime in their attempt to destroy Menin and her generals. Draken was not interested in whether Menin had survived or not. He was after one thing: the Rose of Cerathil.

He would deliver the small and unassuming piece of jewellery to his co-conspirator who thought it would give him more power than any man could or should possess. This would free Draken to search out his own heart’s desire. He had only to find it on pain of death, and he knew from experience that it would be worn around her neck.

He clambered over the remains of the doorway to the balcony and peeked around it. Menin was there, in bad shape. She had been struck by falling debris during a second giant attack, and now she was laid face down on the floor.

Draken took only moments to act. This was his chance. He quickly stepped over to Menin and wrenched the Stone of Cerathil from around her neck. Her head bounced off the floor as the chain snapped.

A big smile spread across his face as he stood and checked about him for witnesses, and then deposited the precious stone in his pack. He removed a replica of the Rose of Cerathil from his clothes and fastened this around Menin’s neck. He took a few steps back towards the study, and then returned to her, and aimed a vicious kick to the side of her head.

‘That is for ruining my life,’ he snarled.

Coinin was quite used to the giant’s movements by this time, although he did stumble somewhat if he failed to concentrate properly. He still wielded his club clumsily at all and sundry and even endangered his own side. On the bright side, goblins in his vicinity ran for safety, terrified, realising that they were now at the sharp end of his weapon.

Two giants headed his way. They towered thirty-eight feet, which was considerably taller than he, and he realised he had not thought this out thoroughly. No mysterious voice told him how to fight two giants of superior strength and size.

The first of the giants thundered up to him and shoved him hard in the chest. ‘Wha’ you do?’

Coinin pushed the giant in return. ‘They not friends,’ Coinin boomed.

The larger giant cocked his head and tried to comprehend what Coinin had said. ‘Wha’ you mean?’

Coinin knew he had to carefully word his response. He needed all the help he could get if he and Menin were to defeat the goblin army.

Then the answer came like a godsend. A score of goblin warriors that barely reached above his ankle attacked his legs with swords and axes. They had already inflicted quite a significant amount of damage to his newly acquired legs without his knowledge. This mind exchange obviously did not involve full sensory input, and that was dangerous. Coinin pointed to the goblins.

‘Bad goblins,’ Coinin rumbled.

Coinin could almost see the cogs turn as the other giant tried hard to comprehend the message. Then a lamp seemed to light behind the dull grey eyes of his foe. He held out an arm for Coinin to grasp.

‘Kill goblin,’ the giant beamed.

Coinin could have leapt for joy. He clasped the arm of his newly found ally, grateful that the giant had not seen him attack the goblins first.

The second giant lumbered over and gave a toothy grin.

‘Kill goblin fun,’ he laughed as he picked up two of the creatures that sliced at Coinin’s legs.

He smashed their heads together, and then moved his hands apart to find them covered in green sticky liquid. He looked perplexed. A moment later realisation hit and he guffawed, threw the bodies aside, and targeted his next victims.

Coinin, with the aid of his two new companions, herded a score of goblins to the only natural safe haven in the belly of the dormant volcano.

A deep cave was set into the high mountainous walls, and afforded temporary protection to those within, but also hampered any attempt at escape.

Coinin told his two giant friends to stand guard outside the cave entrance, and then wandered out of sight of the two as nonchalantly as he could, in search of Menin. As he left, the pair began to play a game he had not seen before. They balanced a stone on the end of their noses, the idea being to not let it drop while they punched each other hard in the jaw. As the giants’ laughter and grunts of pain subsided, a figure on a white charger cantered up to him. Coinin knelt before the bloodied and battered Menin and still towered over her.

‘Coinin,’ she yelled. ‘You will have to rid the Sanctuary of those giants before we can move in on the goblins.’

Coinin raised his giant hands in submission; he had run out of ideas.

‘How?’ he drawled.

A heavy weight crashed into Coinin from behind. Arms and legs flailed as he fought off his unseen attacker. He felt a massive blow to his side as he was flung against a huge oak tree. One of the two giants had followed him, but he had little time to contemplate this as strong hands wrapped around his throat and squeezed.

Even though he could not feel the actual chokehold, he knew that the body would fail as it starved of oxygen. Without air, he and the giant would again swap minds, and Menin would be left in the company of two giants. Try as he might, he could not muster the strength to fight back, his muscles failing to respond to his will.

He almost lost consciousness, and things went black momentarily. Ghostly images swirled before him that made no sense, until he was again free of the confines of his body, in a similar manner to when he had searched for Marrok. He took a sharp upwards turn and instantly recognised his surroundings. The summit of the Cliff of Judgement loomed, and a few seconds later he was jolted to a stop opposite a cloaked figure who appeared through a mass of images of battle. The individual stood on top of a boulder, some thirty feet from the edge of the cliff, focused intently on the battlefield below. Coinin noted that the figure raised aloft a staff that held a globe of green light.

Had this man instigated this battle?

Coinin was suddenly whipped away and found he was again in control of the giant’s mind. He sat up stiffly and looked about him. Marrok beamed at him from the chest of his opponent, now dead at his hands.

Coinin struggled to speak, and it was a full minute before his throat was capable of it.

‘Wizard,’ Coinin croaked, and pointed towards the Cliff of Judgement.

All eyes looked in the direction of the cliff; however, it was too high to see what he had pointed to.

Marrok looked puzzled. ‘Where?’

Coinin coughed. ‘Up there, a wizard, controlling the giants,’ he growled.

Menin, looking haggard, turned to General Jericho who had joined her. ‘There should be no one up there. Seek out this mage and bring him to me.’

Jericho signalled that his squad should follow him. Each soldier saluted Menin as they filed past her, and raced to the Cliff of Judgement.

Marrok wiped his bloodied blade on his tunic and strode to Coinin. ‘Come on, brother, we have a giant to kill.’ A large smile spread across his face and his eyes were positively radiant.

Draken had taken refuge in the tallest of the temple’s towers. From this high vantage point, he had witnessed the battle with satisfaction. His nephews were still alive, and he had two of his trophies, but to leave the Sanctuary now would raise suspicion. He needed to remain blameless if he was to use the boys further. He was sure Menin would not discover the fake Rose of Cerathil until it was too late. Now he had to hide the real necklace, and hope that she would never discover the truth. The amulet had to be undetectable to sight, touch, and magic.

He withdrew his own sword from its scabbard. He peeled off leather strips that bound the grip on this specially made sword, and wound the amulet’s silver chain around the grip to form a new one. This complete, he inserted the ruby-red stone into a cavity within the pommel that he himself had built. He positioned a steel disc over the cavity to hide the ruby, and with a snap it clicked into place. Finally, he rewound the leather over the weapon’s grip, hiding the necklace.

Proud of his work, he cast a powerful charm that would prevent the discovery of the amulet by magical means. He replaced the sword in its sheath and wandered over to the tiny slit window to survey the scene.

General Jericho led his squad to the base of the Cliff of Judgement. His brow beaded with sweat from the jog, yet he looked resplendent in his gold-accented breastplate that dazzled as it caught the light. He wore a crimson velvet cloak about his shoulders with the Brotherhood insignia emblazoned across its back. He raised a golden-hilted sword for silence. His men formed a semicircle in front of him, and each knelt on one knee following his example.

‘I do not need to tell you that experienced wizards are notoriously difficult to capture, let alone kill,’ the general said, his fingers playing with his beard.

‘Sir,’ began a young private. ‘Why are we listening to the word of a giant? We have not even seen this mage; what if it’s a dark wizard up there?’

‘Then we are potentially in even greater trouble,’ Jericho replied. ‘In regard to the giant, well, he is no ordinary giant, he is an ally that Curator Menin trusts.’

The young private bowed his head.

Jericho continued. ‘I believe our best chance of countering this threat is to create a diversion. While this mage is distracted, we will attack from the rear.’

‘What’s your plan?’ Lieutenant Su’un Quindil, a short, plump man asked.

‘Simple.’ Jericho faced his lieutenant. ‘Your squad will make a frontal feint, and I will corner him from behind while he’s distracted.’

‘That’s not possible, Sir. You do realise what you propose is against protocol?’

‘Of course I do. I did not make General by sitting on my rump and getting fat while good men died in battle,’ he said as he patted his ample stomach. ‘That’s due to the fine wine and feasting. In all seriousness, though, I have fought in almost every campaign the Brotherhood has undertaken in the last thirty years, and today is no different.’

‘You stayed behind the front lines, Sir.’ Lieutenant Quindil reminded.

‘Are you questioning my authority, Lieutenant?’ Jericho demanded.

‘No, Sir. But Curator Menin will have my head if something were to happen to you.’

‘Then I shall have to make sure that doesn’t happen.’

‘I must insist that you remain behind. If you were injured or killed, we would lose our leadership.’

Jericho refused to listen to reason. ‘True, but I possess skills you do not, and my decision is final.’

‘I want it known that I objected,’ said Quindil.

‘Objection noted, Su’un. Now, I believe a single man will have a better chance to outmanoeuvre our uninvited guest.’

This strategy, he knew, had worked to great effect in the past. However, he had never tackled what was potentially a dark wizard single-handedly. He was nearing the age of compulsory retirement and desired one last glorious moment in battle. He had spent too many years, to his liking, watching others take the risks while he sat by and played the tactician. He was bored, and he was taking a great risk and knew it. He just hoped Menin would understand. He took a long look at his assembled men and smiled.

‘I do not think I need to tell you what a pleasure it has been serving the Brotherhood alongside you,’ Jericho began. ‘Should things go our way, I will treat you all to a fine feast of wine and women, the like of which has never been seen.’

Laughter was interspersed with a few cheers.

‘Just don’t tell Menin about the women, okay?’ Jericho winked to laughter. ‘Prepare yourselves, and let us defeat this coward.’

The general rose, cracked his neck, and signalled to his lieutenant to follow him. They moved aside from the group, and Jericho embraced the lieutenant’s shoulder before giving his final instructions.

‘I want you to keep your head down. If a man should fall then leave him, we will clean up later,’ he said without emotion. ‘Now if you are ready, go and prepare your men. I will need five minutes to get into position.’

Lieutenant Quindil looked ready to object, but thought better of it. He gave a short salute. ‘Sir, please be careful. Okay?’

‘I always am.’ Jericho smiled.

Quindil turned and headed back to his troop, and left Jericho to take one long last look at the devastated Sanctuary and the partial destruction of the golden temple. He offered a quick prayer to the gods for protection.

After removing his boots and holding them, he closed his eyes and concentrated on his destination, allowing the image to form in his mind to the point that it was almost real enough to touch. He remembered his training as a young man and the instructor telling him that trying to picture a destination was as hard as trying to visualise the back of his neck.

She was right, of course, yet he uttered a single word: ‘Destinaté,’ and disappeared with a small whoosh of air.

Moments later, he reappeared in a small recess in the walls of the mountain pass still holding his boots. He surprised even himself on the accuracy of his spell. However, this form of magic always took its toll on him. His head spun from the physical exertion that his body had endured before it reformed at its destination. He had little time to focus fully. His men were minutes away from staging their attack, and somewhere ahead of him was his quarry.

Lieutenant Quindil had his men assemble at each side of the Cliff of Judgement. He had split the troop into two units. Each man was battle-ready and a few offered silent prayers to the gods; others fingered prayer beads while they murmured to themselves.

Lieutenant Quindil clicked his fingers, which drew the two teams to his attention. He raised three fingers at them in a silent countdown.

As he reached one, Quindil cast aloud: ‘Ascenderá,’ and with a slight jolt he and his men ascended the cliff magically on a cushion of air. He was elated. This was the first time he had used magic in battle, and not everyone was permitted to or had the ability to use it at the temple. He had joined the order after his grandfather had seen the spark of a mage in him, and he had impressed the Archmage with his skill, so much so that he had taken special training over the years to improve his abilities.

Quindil was ahead of the group and cast a shield charm, ten feet in from the cliff edge, at the very moment he appeared above the lip. This would afford his men some level of protection as they landed softly.

The wizard had been ready for an attack. His proximity charm triggered. A shower of sparks shot into the air near the edge of the cliff. A flock of birds screeched, and then took flight.

The wizard looked left and right. Quindil’s charm had rendered his troops undetectable. It took moments for Quindil and his men to take up positions behind boulders and outcrops of rock at the sides of the pass. The wizard had not spotted the enemy yet, but would be ready for them; the sparks were evidence enough of that.

The wizard cast a ‘Disintegrá!’ spell. It broke the silence, and a wave of destruction powered its way towards the cliff edge.

The shockwave deafened them with a thunderous clap, and a flash of brilliant light blinded all those in its vicinity. It disintegrated all in its path, boulders and rocks reduced to dust that blew in the wind. Fortunately the wave had lost most of its power by the time it reached Quindil who had retreated behind a large boulder.

He closed his eyes tight as three of his troop bled to death in the dirt not too far from him. All that remained of a fourth was a severed hand that twitched uncontrollably.

From his vantage point, General Jericho cursed the evil before him. This ended now, either with this devil’s death or his own.

He would create three elaborate distractions, yet for this to succeed, he would need to be within ten feet of his foe. But this wizard was smart. He had already set up defences and Jericho had no idea what else the enemy had in store.

Jericho, however, had an ace up his sleeve; he could transform into a leopard, a gift bestowed by the gods. He took a deep breath and murmured to the creator, and then transformed into the silken-bodied black creature. Not a drawn-out, bone-wrenching, flesh-tearing experience like that of a werewolf, but as smooth as if he were made of silk.

He was never in full control of his alter ego. A certain amount of animal instinct took over, and that made him a hunter and killer, formidable in battle. Many a time his troops had been shocked to discover a leopard fighting alongside them on the battlefield, the official explanation from the Archmage was that it was a guardian spirit sent to protect the troops when they needed it most.

He silently padded into the cold night, and spied his prey in the distance.

A slim hand held aloft a long, thin wand that directed shafts of red light at Quindil’s men. The wizard’s spells smacked into rock and ground with a force that sent great plumes of dust into the air, inches from those who sheltered behind cover.

The dark wizard’s spell-casting was effective and kept the attackers at bay. However, Jericho in his new form was able to close the gap to within ten feet. He was ready to enact the rest of his plan when his forepaw trod on a dry twig and it snapped with a crack. The dark wizard whirled to face him, alert to the threat behind.

The general stopped dead, his foreleg raised several inches off the ground. The wizard dropped his staff and briefly disappeared, to reappear just inches from him. It was an effective use of the Destinaté spell.

Animal instinct took over and Jericho crouched low as he readied himself to pounce with a snarl.

‘I wouldn’t bother if I were you, Jericho,’ said a cold, high voice from under the hood of the wizard’s cloak.

Jericho felt speared to the core. How did this person know he had transformed into a leopard? Only senior order members knew of his gift. Should he bluff it? Maybe he could still deceive the threat into believing he was a dumb animal.

‘It is no use pretending, Jericho; I would know that form anywhere. Show your true self, or do I have to make you?’ The wizard brandished his wand.

There was no question then that this had to be a senior member of the order.

The wizard dropped his cowl and Jericho’s breath quickened; this had to be a lie, a figment of his imagination. Before him stood his wife Eraywen, although she looked cold and vacant.

‘Are you surprised to see me? I wonder whom you were expecting,’ she asked with a sneer.

Jericho transformed back into his human form. He did not bother to rise from all fours and his head hung low. ‘Why you?’ he asked quietly. His naked body shivered in the cold night air.

‘Because, my darling, I tire of watching you and your noble friends prance around the land in your vain attempt to put the world to rights. You force everyone to conform to your beliefs. It amuses me to cause disorder and watch you and your pathetic men try to stop me.’

‘Why, Eraywen? Why?’ Jericho asked miserably.

Eraywen strode up and down in front of Jericho, and appeared to enjoy the moment. ‘You think there is but one Council of Mages on this little rock? Wrong, there are two. You belong to the first, and I the second. You fight for truth and justice at the price of freedom. We fight to rid this world of your tyranny, and become the dominant spiritual power in the land.’

‘Why would you do this to the temple?’

‘This is just the start. We will rid this world of all Brotherhood temples, and what better temple to start with than your own,’ Eraywen replied.

‘Please Eraywen, stop this now, I beg you. This is my home.’

‘A home segregated from the world. I am afraid I cannot stop this. The wheels are in motion to destroy the Brotherhood of the Wulf, and that day will be a glorious day.’

‘You are deluded, Eraywen, and I will have to stop you.’

‘You do not stand a chance. Leave now and I will spare your life.’

Without warning, Jericho roared and leapt to his feet. In one swift movement, he grabbed Eraywen and twirled her so that she faced away from him. He held her tightly. Tears stung his eyes as he gripped her wand arm.

Eraywen attempted to free herself, but Jericho was a very strong man. A silver butterfly talisman swung from side to side around her neck as she struggled to free herself from Jericho’s grasp.

‘You cannot cast magic at what you cannot see,’ said Jericho through clenched teeth. ‘That is the preserve of the most eminent of mages, and eminent you are not.’

Eraywen merely craned her neck, looked him in the eyes and smiled. Jericho responded before she could act and spoke aloud a simple sleeping spell. Eraywen collapsed unconscious.

He stepped aside from her and retrieved his clothing, minus his armour, and quickly dressed. He then returned to Eraywen’s still form, but as he reached her, he froze. A terrifying half-screech, half-roar cut through the air, unlike any he had heard before. A dark shape appeared above him and blocked out the moon.

He was powerless to react as a colossal scaly claw enveloped him, and then a moment later a second clenched Eraywen in its grasp. The creature wrenched them both into the evening sky.

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